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Great Barrington Police Department soon to be county’s first accredited police force

Police Chief William Walsh says his department is aware of Great Barrington’s “downtown [drug dealing] activity” and they monitor it. “We have to walk the line between harassing people and doing our job … we know who the players are.”

Great Barrington — I’m standing in the evidence room with Great Barrington Chief of Police William Walsh when an officer bounds in with a plastic ziploc containing a green substance. “I pulled someone over and look what I found,” he said, setting down the bag of marijuana, which begins to exude its scent. As we shake hands, he realizes he coached my son’s little league baseball team several years ago. He hops in front of a computer and begins to make his report.

Great Barrington Police Officer Adam Carlotto files his report in the evidence room. During a traffic stop he had just confiscated a plastic bag (on the counter) containing a greenish substance that is likely to be marijuana. Photo: Heather Bellow
Great Barrington Police Officer Adam Carlotto files his report in the evidence room. During a traffic stop he had just confiscated a plastic bag (on the counter) containing a greenish substance that is likely to be marijuana. Photo: Heather Bellow

Walsh, Chief of Police in this busy department for the last 32 years, was giving me a tour of the 15-year-old headquarters on Main Street, pointing out relatively new equipment that is now standard in police departments everywhere, like a machine that takes electronic fingerprints instead using of old-style ink and paper. It was paid for by a $30,000 grant.

Things are going more and more digital in the policing world, Walsh explained, making things easier in some ways, and mostly for the tech savvy younger officers. In the control room, one sees such a sight: young men manning several stations of computers and monitors, including equipment for the only 911 communications center in South County.

Yet there are still things about policing that technology can’t entirely replace. Walsh takes me down to the cell block, a reminder that police officers are often in contact, mostly with strangers, who are making bad choices, may be desperate or addicted, unwell, or just having one of the worst days of their lives. Some, unfortunately, make their way through these doors with more regularity than others.

“We’ve got suicide glass on the doors,” Walsh says. “And cameras.” When occupied, those cellblocks are monitored from the control room 24/7.

Chief Walsh flips through the accreditation manual. Photo: Heather Bellow
Chief Walsh flips through the accreditation manual. Photo: Heather Bellow

Managing “prisoners,” Walsh tells me, is one important reason state accreditation is so crucial for the department. They are nearly there; the department is already the first in Berkshire County to be certified by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission as operating according to its standards. But the “goal,” Walsh says, is “full accreditation within the next year,” which would also be a first in the county.

Walsh says following the accreditation manual — which, by the way is very thick — and using “best practices,” reduces all kinds of liability and gives the town “a little break” on insurance. While “it’s mainly paperwork driven,” he said, “it helps in case of a lawsuit or complaint.”

Walsh says “assessment teams” from the commission will return to spend a few days in the department to see if they’re doing things right. Larger departments in cities have their own separate accreditation staff to streamline things; it takes more work and money in these smaller police stations.

“It has to be in practice,” Walsh says, “not just on the shelf.” And it covers everything from how to fill out reports to school shootings. Because cellblock standards are “a high liability thing,” this is an area of intense evaluation for accreditation. Also, Walsh noted, this department is the only one nearby with a cellblock, and must accommodate prisoners from other towns

The Police Department armory.
The Police Department armory. Photo: Heather Bellow

We pass a door that says “Armory.” Naturally, I ask if I can go in. Expecting to see the contents of a gun shop, I am shocked by how mundane it is –– and how small. It is practically a broom closet with a stack of ammunition boxes and several shotguns and two handguns. He explains that the assault rifles go in the cruisers in case of an “incident in our schools,” for instance, for which he says the department is prepared. Police departments have largely switched to assault rifles that deliver more accurate shots and are less likely to harm bystanders than shotguns. He said the firearms wouldn’t do much good locked in the closet should something happen.

Walsh remembers the 1992 shooting rampage by student Wayne Lo at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, just up the road. Two were killed, four wounded. “In all the years since, I haven’t come up with an answer — nobody has. It was an awful night.”

He worries about excessive news coverage of mass shootings. “It shows them how to do it,” he said. “Then you get copycats. It’s reasonable in their world.” He attributes mass shootings to “alienation” and mental instability, though he says he still isn’t entirely sure what drives it.

Packs of ammunition in the Police Department's armory.
Packs of ammunition in the Police Department’s armory. Photo: Heather Bellow

We talk about heroin, increasingly a problem in the county — and the country––particularly since it can now be bought for less than a six-pack. The state overall saw a 19 percent increase in drug overdoses (mainly opioids) from 2013 to 2014, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between 2000 and 2011, the state’s department of public health said unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Berkshire County remained mostly in the low single digits; by 2012 that number had spiked to 15 and rose to 27 in 2014.

I ask Walsh about the situation in Great Barrington, where it’s obvious to anyone walking on Main Street that people are buying and selling drugs in various locations.

The Great Barrington department, he said, is part of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, an agency directed by the state police through the District Attorney’s Office that shares resources throughout the county. The Great Barrington department keeps a workspace in the basement for the Task Force should it be needed. And when the Task Force requires manpower, the department sends three officers who are specially trained for this work, and the department is reimbursed for what it spends to cover those shifts. Much of that work, Walsh says, takes place in Pittsfield and North Adams.

The male cell block at the Great Barrington Police Department.
The male cell block at the Great Barrington Police Department. Photo: Heather Bellow

Walsh says it’s hard to tell if there’s an increase in the use and sale of heroin Great Barrington, and difficult to provide statistics since the drug trade “knows no bounds or boundaries.” It’s a “mobile business.” But he did say the “opiate problem has mushroomed” everywhere, creating all sorts of related problems for police departments. Here, for instance, there are strings of drug-related break-ins by “a lot of the same players” who get arrested, “go away for a while,” then repeat the cycle, he said.

Walsh says his department is aware of Great Barrington’s “downtown activity” and they monitor it. He said the Triplex parking lot was a trouble spot for a while, sparking complaints from store owners and residents, but “that’s been cleaned up, and there’s no more complaining.”

He says the department is united with Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP) on Bridge Street, and together the two have deterred dealers from the skate park behind RSYP, which, he said, is supposed to be monitored by Berkshire South Regional Community Center. They’ve also made progress in Housatonic riverbank area behind it, and across the street near the bridge and the old Searles High School parking lot.

Downtown Great Barrington, on the west side of Main Street.
Downtown Great Barrington, on the west side of Main Street. Photo: David Scribner

When I mention noticeable activity under a particular awning on the west side of Main Street, Walsh says the department is perfectly aware of it, but his officers have to strike a balance.

“We have to walk the line between harassing people and doing our job,” he said. “We need to be attuned. And we know who the players are.”

But this seasoned Chief says some of these “players” aren’t even worried about getting caught.

“They get arrested, they go to jail — that’s their thing,” Walsh said. “They’re not working a 9 to 5 at the bank. This is their culture, their world. And some are addicted to the point where police are not a deterrent.”

This is where community policing, a philosophy developed in the 1980s, fits in. The strategy is for officers to be a friendly, helpful presence in town ––to be integrated into the community rather than outsiders who only react. “We have a good relationship with the community,” Walsh said, noting that the balance of younger and older officers helps this.

Foot and bike patrols are a key element here; it used to be called “walking the beat.” The department recently sent an officer on summer bike patrols downtown. “It was a big hit,” Walsh said. “It’s ideal in the summer when the drug trade gets busier.”

On a bike the officer can easily “shoot over to the skate park or [Housatonic] River Walk,” Walsh said. He wants to expand the bike patrol to the spring and fall months, but he said he doesn’t always have the available staff to do it. He wants more officers on the street, but it’s a tight money ship, with three at a time on shift — one inside at the desk and two out. The department has six cruisers, and two are out at a time, one running here and there to answer calls, the other to catch speeders. The department covers Housatonic, too. He said he encourages officers to be out on the street “between calls,” and says he would “definitely” support adding another officer who would be a constant presence downtown.

The Great Barrington Police Department headquarters on South Main Street, across from the intersection of Route 23 (Maple Avenue).
The Great Barrington Police Department headquarters on South Main Street, across from the intersection of Route 23 (Maple Avenue). Photo: Heather Bellow

As usual, it hinges on dollars. But Walsh says he’s grateful for what he has. “The town is good to us,” he said. The department has a total of 17 employees, including Walsh. Eight of those are part-time reserve officers. Walsh recently got his first full-time secretary. Salaries make a roughly $1 million dent in the department’s $1.5 million [2016] budget. Overtime pay accounts for $123,000 of that. When an employee retires or is injured “it hurts,” Walsh said. “With a full staff we’re in good shape.”

He said the town’s support has allowed the department to, for instance, “stay on top of technology” and have a K-9 dog that is certified for missing persons, narcotics and general patrol. “Other towns borrow him from time to time,” he said. The dog lives with a Sheffield-based officer.

Walsh will ask the town for another piece of equipment next year: a $20,000 license plate reader that will instantly pull up information about the driver. At a budget hearing last year, Walsh had mentioned the need for one, saying it was an efficiency and safety tool for the department.

“I’m asking on behalf of my guys,” Walsh told me. “I want to keep up. But I don’t want to push my luck.”

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