Great Barrington police Chief Bill Walsh at a September 2019 selectboard meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Alan Chartock: I Publius

Now is a time in which police are under a microscope.

Great Barrington has to pick a new police chief. Chief William Walsh Jr. has announced his retirement, so now is a good time to examine the way in which we recruit police chiefs. This town has always used a civil service model: You take a test and if you get the highest passing grade, within limits, you become the chief. Once there, it’s harder than firing a rocket from Cape Canaveral to get that chief fired. Great Barrington has a lot of cops for a town of 7,000 full time residents. Sixteen cops can present a chief with a lot of problems. As we are finding out, police have a great deal of power. This is so true that even the district attorney, faced with a cop who has been caught driving drunk, has to resort to a special prosecutor because of the DA’s close relationship with the police. As far as I’m concerned, that just ain’t right. Cops should never be above the law.

If you used a different model than the civil service model to select a police chief, namely the old political model in which the chief was chosen by the selectboard or the town manager, you risk the chief responding to the whims or political objectives of the selectpersons. We all know that there are tremendous risks here. Under the present system, the chief reports to the town manager and there is every indication that the present town manager, Mark Pruhenski, is doing remarkably well in that relationship. However, I have seen town managers who have not had an easy time with police.

Now is a time in which police are under a microscope. Compared to the bad old days, things seem quite mild in Great Barrington, but the public is demanding more transparency. They want to know more about the police themselves. If a policeman is picked up for drunk driving, it is essential to know what that officer’s disciplinary record is. Has he or she been counseled? Is the present charge a sign of something deeper? Why on Earth shouldn’t we be able to access the background of a police officer when information on any one of us would be subject to that kind of disclosure?

We do know that one is attracted to a profession for various reasons. The psychological orientation of the police officer affects their past, present and future behavior. Studies have shown that many police officers are attracted to their jobs because of their attitudes toward power. I have seen police bully people who may or may not deserve to be pushed around. Even when you are dealing with a presumed criminal, it is the job of the district attorney to prosecute. It is the job of the police officer to apprehend, but not to make deals. I have seen an officer who metes out justice and makes it clear to the accused violator that the officer has the power to send you to jail or to keep you free. The question might then be asked, why do we need courts or juries or judges?

No one wants to see stores being looted or police buildings burn down. I have said that Donald Trump could be reelected as a result of the scenes we are watching on nightly television. This plays right into his hands. Martin Luther King Jr. counseled against riots. Of course, American racism is a white riot. When you are denied work or the right to own a house because of your skin pigment, your house is being burned down.

So, the selection of a police chief is extremely important. The selectboard should ponder this and even appoint a committee to discuss the implications of this choice. We thank Chief Walsh for his service and what he has accomplished, but now is a time for serious reflection.