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Williamstown Police officers engage with the public last summer during an open house event tied to the National Night Out initiative.

Williamstown Police Chief Talks About Challenges of Community Engagement

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Police say their efforts for community policing  walking Spring Street and managing traffic at the school — has not always been welcomed.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Even in a small town with a low crime rate, the Williamstown Police Department faces obstacles when it comes to community policing.
 
"We have tried a handful of times to have a foot patrol on Spring Street," Police Chief Kyle Johnson said on Wednesday morning. "Just to have an officer actively engaged in the community, to strike up conversations, to 'humanize the badge,' if you will. And it sparked fear. People see an officer walking down Spring Street, and they say, 'What's going on? Why are you here? What's the matter?'
 
"We said, 'OK, that's because it's new.' But then as we kept doing it, the result didn't change. It created more issues. So we pulled back. We don't do it."
 
Johnson was engaging with a dozen or so residents who participated in the town's second virtual Coffee with a Cop event.
 
It was the second such webinar since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis reignited a national conversation about race and, more specifically, policing.
 
The two virtual weekday morning conversations have been better attended than past efforts to hold face-to-face Coffee with a Cop chats. Although there was no formal agenda for the video conference, the conversation focused largely on ways that the local police can form better connections with town residents, particularly communities of color.
 
Johnson, Lt. Mike Ziemba and Town Manager Jason Hoch represented the town and police during the conversation.
 
Ziemba backed up the chief's comments about the issues that have arisen with foot patrols in the town's Village Business District.
 
"It wasn't just the patrons," he said. "It was the business owners, too. They really didn't want us down there."
 
As Johnson mentioned in the first video conference on June 3, the town's low crime rate, while a blessing, cuts down on face-to-face interactions between residents and police officers.
 
"We're basically scaled to have two officers on duty 24/7 for the myriad calls that come in across all disciplines," Hoch said. "We have the luxury of deploying many of our resources, the vast majority of time into what I'll call the quality of life issues: vehicles speeding, parking tickets, those sorts of things."
 
One of the themes that came up repeatedly in Wednesday's conversation was a call for the local police to do a better job engaging with younger residents.
 
Drea Finley asked the chief whether the Police Department had a formal mentoring program in place and, informed that it does not, advocated for such an initiative.
 
"I've done some work in this capacity before where, in thinking about engaging younger communities … especially our young children, K through 5 and various capacities with our young folks moving on up, we think about critical engagements with young people and how we're moving through young folk in general," Finley said. "Mentoring programs can be really, really successful in schools, when we talk about bridging communities.
 
"On some levels, children can respond really strongly to the notion of having a mentor. So, 'My mentor Kyle is also a cop.' That's a really strong notion. But it's also a really strong notion if the children are then tasked with a goal of keeping their mentor, or cop, Kyle accountable in some capacity as well. … You might take your mentee out to lunch once a month or twice a month, and … maybe there is some aspect of showing him the work in a very minute, miniscule level that allows an engagement within a community aspect of something that is safe."
 
Finley, the dialogue facilitator for Williams College's Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, said a mentoring program does not have to be expensive but did suggest that the college could help fund such an initiative.
 
Both Johnson and Hoch said they would be interested in continuing a conversation about how Williamstown could take Finley's suggestion about mentoring and run with it.
 
But the police officers on the call noted that past outreach to Williamstown youth has had mixed results. Ziemba said the Police Department used to host a block party event on the grounds of the elementary school; declining attendance by community members led to the demise of that annual event.
 
And when the police were asked by Williamstown Elementary School to come on a daily basis and help regulate traffic during drop-off and pickup periods, some people objected to the daily police presence in the parking lot.
 
"We're in the schools, and that's a double-edged sword because not everybody agrees with that," Johnson said. "Most recently, we've received pushback — well, we have all along, but recently it's come to light more — being at the elementary school for drop-off and dismissal. Some people don't want us there.
 
"One of the comments was, 'You being there normalizes the police.' In my mind, we want to be normal, we want to be seen as human, we want to be approachable. We want to build that rapport. We're high-fiving and fist-bumping the kids as they're running into school."
 
Johnson said the traffic control in the parking lot at the start and end of the school day started with a complaint from a parent who was worried that someone was going to get struck by a vehicle. And after observing a typical day in the school's parking lot, he agreed that a police officer on scene could help.
 
"In my mind, that's a very good thing for a police officer to do, and we're happy to do it," Johnson said. "It's part of the shift. It doesn't cost anybody any extra money. We can be there almost every drop-off and dismissal because calls for service don't take us away. But we've had pushback. Parents confront us and say: You're not wanted here; you don't need to be here."
 
Ziemba said the department is happy to go into the schools and has, whether it is to read stories to children or conduct drills. But those visits have to be on the schools' terms, he said.
 
At one point, Johnson was asked whether interactions like a traffic detail in the school parking lot could be more productive if the police officer was not armed. He said that from his perspective, officers need to be armed whenever they are on duty.
 
"A police officer in uniform is armed," Johnson said. "If we're not armed, we're negligent because God forbid we need to use force because of some scenario — active shooter would be the one that is prevalent right now.
 
"If a police officer is there, on duty, and doesn't have the tools to do the job, we set everybody up to fail."
 
Ziemba echoed that sentiment.
 
"This goes back to the whole, we've got to plan for the worst," he said. "It's like active shooter or active threat training in the schools. We hope and pray that we'll never see it or deal with it or have to hear about it anywhere. But if we don't know what to do when that happens, and we're not trained and equipped, we're negligent."
 
The town and Williamstown Police Department plan to continue the Coffee with a Cup initiative — virtually for now and, perhaps in person when the current public health emergency subsides. Look for future events to be posted on the town's website.

Tags: community policing,   

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Mount Greylock School Committee Votes Down Remote Learning Start to School Year

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires.com Sports

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two months of input and advice from Mount Greylock’s working groups looking at the reopening of school were undone in four hours of discussion by the School Committee on Thursday night.

On a 6-1 vote, the committee directed interim superintendent Robert Putnam to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a radically different plan for the start of the year that moves more children into the school building more quickly than the administration was recommending.
 
Subject to approval by DESE and, not insignificantly, collective bargaining with the district’s unions, there will be no two-week period of fully remote learning as Putnam was proposing.
 
Putnam went into Thursday’s meeting with plans based on input from groups established in the spring and summer by him and his predecessor with the goal of getting the School Committee's blessing for the plan he has to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday.
 
Putnam laid out a plan largely like the one he presented in a virtual town hall on Tuesday evening and told the School Committee he was looking for guidance.
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