Great Barrington — There is an ongoing movement across the country to put police officers back on the streets – where they belong, some might say.
That movement is increasingly evident in the South County, land of Norman Rockwell, who famously depicted officers rubbing elbows with small-town residents, notably children. The movement is especially pronounced in Great Barrington, where police Chief Bill Walsh himself can be seen walking the Main Street beat, often during the lunch hour.
“I’ve found, over the years, that people like having a police officer out there,” Walsh said during a recent interview. “People are always saying it’s nice to see us out there. I think it’s good for the department and good for the downtown business area.”
Walsh said he would also like to get more officers out on bicycle patrol, but that presents some difficulties because it requires an additional certification. And only two of his 16 officers are certified for mountain-bike patrol.
Town manager Jennifer Tabakin told The Edge that foot patrol is “an important part of our department’s community policing program.”
“This summer, reflecting both the completion of the Main Street reconstruction and new hires within our department, we have been able to fully return to this patrol,” Tabakin said. “We have officers patrolling on Main Street and a bicycle patrol.”
And foot patrol has recently become a part of police policy in Great Barrington. Walsh said that all officers on day and evening shifts are required to spend a minimum of an hour on the street. This includes command staff.
Walsh said, for the past couple of summers, officers walking the beat often visit not only the core downtown area but the skate park and the Housatonic River Walk as well, where there are sometimes people “doing things they’re not supposed to be doing.”
Walsh looks a tad uncomfortable on the street, frequently removing his hat and slicking back his sweaty hair on this hot August afternoon.
“They’re not made for heat,” he says of the dark blue uniforms officers typically wear on the job.
However, Great Barrington’s streets are very safe so the foot patrols should not be seen as a response to any increase in crime, Tabakin explained. As a general rule, street patrol enables officers to interact with the public and business owners on a daily basis.
“This [cop on the beat] builds trust and better understanding of the needs of the community,” Tabakin said.
Stockbridge police Chief Darrell G. Fennelly echoed that sentiment in an Edge interview. He said his department has always required officers to walk around town. Indeed, the practice has been in place for some time, dating back to the tenure of legendary Chief Rick Wilcox, who retired in 2012 after 43 years with the Stockbridge police.
“I’m out here every day, too,” Fennelly said. “Even if you’re on night shift, you walk around and check the doors to make sure they’re locked.”
Sometimes when Main Street is especially busy, such as during the summer or the Stockbridge Library’s annual book sale, officers will help direct motorists attempting back out of those tricky diagonal parking spots downtown.
“It’s a community policing interaction with the public and it builds goodwill,” said Fennelly, adding that tourists and locals alike are fond of the foot patrols.
“I’m not sure where they come from and whether they see this kind of thing back home, but we certainly get a lot of compliments on it,’ Fennelly said.
Lenox police Chief Stephen E. O’Brien said his department has no formal policy on walking a beat but several of his officers do so.
“We don’t have a dedicated patrol, but several officers do like to get out and do it,” said O’Brien, who has been chief for 12 years. “It’s up to the patrolman. I go out myself a couple times a week.”
“That is the foundation to addressing problems or emergencies effectively if they arise,” Tabakin added. “Chief Walsh is a leader in community policing and I fully support his work in this area. It reflects my approach and belief in what works.”
Since the Great Recession of 2008-09 ended and the economy has gradually recovered, cities and towns have hired more police officers. The number of police officers in the U.S. dropped 14 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the FBI.
If the cop on the beat seems like a quaint and bygone notion, there is a reason for it. As budgets were squeezed during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s and subsequent recessions in the ‘80s, police departments – especially those in cities – looked to save money, even as the crack cocaine epidemic started. And the radio-dispatched police cruiser was a way of doing that, allowing relatively fewer officers to respond in a matter of minutes to incidents that, in some cases, were still unfolding as officers arrived.
There were cries for more foot-patrol officers as far back as the 1980s, when the New York Times editorialized against the movement away from community policing.
“Yet in focusing on faster response, the police have sacrificed their involvement in the community,” the Times said.
“Officers on foot patrol were a reassuring, approachable presence in fearful neighborhoods. And they were in a better position to act quickly against street problems like vandalism, drinking, drug use and other public misbehavior that contribute to neighborhood decline and may precede more serious criminality.”
Meanwhile, the city of Baltimore is requiring its officers to spend a portion of their days on the streets.
“We’re pushing every police officer to get out of their cars for 30 minutes no matter if it’s in a residential area, commercial area, to engage in the community,” police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts told the Baltimore Sun in 2015.
But, as Tabakin noted, Great Barrington and other South County towns aren’t exactly experiencing a crime wave.
“Although ‘community policing’ is a relatively new term to describe a collaborative and cooperative relationship with the community, here in the Berkshires, it is a very old tradition,” said Tabakin, who worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg before moving to the Berkshires and becoming town manager in 2013. “That is the foundation to addressing problems or emergencies effectively if they arise.”
In addition to the foot patrols, new to the police department is the civilian position of community liaison. Cara Becker holds that position and doubles as Walsh’s executive administrative assistant. Tabakin says Becker “can represent the police department at meetings, events and listen to concerns.”
“In the next year, I hope to work with Chief Walsh and our sergeants to expand our initiatives and resources in the areas of domestic violence, public health and addiction, and by offering additional translation services,” Tabakin explained.
“It’s a small-town feeling when you see a police officer out there on the street,’ Walsh said.
Hard to argue with that.