March Williamstown Conference Designed as Dialogue Between Community, Police
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Peggy Kern is realistic about the potential for an upcoming community conversation about policing.
"I don't think you're going to get in one afternoon a magical fix," Kern said recently. "The value for me is it's a great opportunity for the community to come together to talk about policing in a local, specific way but also in a broader way.
"What is policing? What do we want? What areas do we have alignment together?"
Those are some of the questions likely to come up in a daylong symposium planned for Saturday, March 12, at Mount Greylock Regional School as part of the Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program.
Interim Chief Mike Ziemba reached out to the Department of Justice's Community Relation Service to bring the SPCP initiative to Williamstown after a year of calls for police reform that started in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minnesota but intensified when a lawsuit against the town raised allegations of misconduct closer to home in the Williamstown Police Department.
Kern is on a group of residents Ziemba invited to help plan for the daylong program coming up in March.
"I have not taken a lead role on this," Ziemba said. "I want everyone else to do this so they are feeling included. This is not my show. This is the town's show.
"I'm hoping we have 200 or 300 people show up."
Recently, Ziemba, Kern and Jake Schutz sat down to talk about the program and broader issues of what police can be doing and should be doing in the town of 7,700.
Ziemba said he heard about the SPCP program during a presentation from the South County-based Bekshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education, or Multicultural BRIDGE.
According to the Department of Justice website, Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships is a program designed to help communities find collaborative solutions, often in response to critical incidents.
"The program can also help local leaders address longstanding community distrust and other historical barriers that hinder police-community partnerships," according to the DOJ. "The outcome of the SPCP program is an action plan with tangible solutions implemented with the help of an SPCP Council formed as part of the program."
The SPCP Council is the second phase of the local process, the phase to which all are invited on March 12. Ziemba pulled together a smaller group that has been working since July on planning the main event.
"The DOJ is the main facilitator," Schutz said. "The planning group does the logistics. Right now, the only thing that exists is the planning group.
"Part of logistics and planning is soliciting and recruiting targeted groups."
Ziemba said he specifically recruited residents, like Kern, who have been outspoken in their criticism of the WPD.
Both Schutz and Kern said the planning group meetings have been productive and not polarizing.
"The planning group has been really productive and able to set aside any sparring with each other and focus on the task at hand," Kern said. "And we have found points of alliance where we can work together. We don't agree on everything, but that's OK.
"We're not here to perform activism. We're here to help communities as best we can. This stuff is hard. It's been a brutal few years here."
Accentuating the point, at one juncture of the hour-long conversation in the WPD's training room, Ziemba jokes, "I don't mind that Peggy's always wrong."
To which Kern replies, "And Mike ignores the data."
But underlying the discussion is the sense that all three appreciate the serious nature of the work and what is at stake in a community where many residents have lost faith in the local police department and many others leapt to the WPD's defense, sometimes turning neighbor against neighbor over the question.
The SPCP is just one path Ziemba is taking to restore trust and improve services provided by his department. Another involves the regional Northern Berkshire Hub initiative that brings together first responders, clinicians and doctors to talk about how to address issues like homelessness, substance abuse and mental health.
Ziemba said that police are the first ones called when a resident sees a homeless person or a person with substance abuse issues is in crisis. But police frequently are not the best equipped to handle the underlying issues.
"There's a huge push to have law enforcement not be the only ones to deal with Section 12 mental health situations," Ziemba said. "We're the catch-all 24/7 because the area doesn't have the mental health clinicians we need.
"We would be more than happy if that [clinician] position could be staffed 24/7, and we would be available in a support role when they go out on a call. If they don't need us, we don't go. If they need us, we'd assist. We want that resource just as much as the community does."
Likewise, when the police get a report of a homeless person in town, they check to make sure he or she is OK and offer to contact a local shelter on their behalf, but homelessness is not a crime, Ziemba pointed out.
"You are not a homeless shelter," Kern agreed.
But if local communities can take steps to mitigate problems like homelessness, people can be helped before they end up in the criminal justice system, she said.
"One of the things I've done is participate in the Berkshire County Court Watch program," Kern said. "And one thing that strikes me is the overwhelming percentage of defendants who are low income and need to be connected to services."
Ziemba indicated that the solutions developed at the March SPCP conference could dovetail with the work of the Northern Berkshire Hub and the town's Community Assessment and Research project.
The hope is that event at Mount Greylock, with its multiple breakout sessions for small group discussions, will help the public understand policing and police learn how to better serve the public.
"From the planning group's perspectives, we don't want to speculate on any outcomes," Schutz said. "One goal is to get mutual and agreeable action steps. Another is to build trust."
Ziemba built on the point.
"I think it shows transparency and a willingness to be open to the community and explain what we do," he said. "I think a lot of the issue is people don't understand the things we do, the services we provide and why we do them the way we do.
"Are there things we could change or would like to change? Of course. Maybe someone comes to us and says, 'Make Change A.' And we explain that we can't do that because of the law, but we can make Change B."
The planning committee for Williamstown's Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program is developing a Google Forms sign-up for the March 12 event. Information will be posted on the Williamstown Police Department's website and through its Facebook account.
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