Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti aims to integrate mental health and substance abuse treatment into the force's policing protocols.

Interview: Great Barrington’s new police chief, Paul Storti

One of the department's aims is to develop programs and initiatives to build trust with the community's more under-recognized groups.

[Note: This interview was lightly edited and condensed for purposes of clarity.]

The face and voice you’ll find on the Chief’s Corner page of the Great Barrington Police Department website is that of its new chief, Paul Storti. Police Chief William Walsh recently retired from the force after 40 years of service, 37 of them as chief. The town currently has 17 full-time and four part-time police officers, along with three additional staff, which includes Cara Becker, executive assistant to the Chief. There is one full-time and one part-time Spanish-speaking officer.

Chief Storti was born in 1967 in Great Barrington, where his family had landed at the turn of the 20th century. Three of six Storti brothers immigrated to the U.S. from northern Italy, and three remained at the family homestead near Verona, where one descendent started an eponymous farming machinery business that is now booming and referred to as “The John Deere of Europe.” Chief Storti attended local schools, and a Storti cousin inspired him to become a police officer. He has four children, including son Connor, who’s been on the force for just over a year.

During his tenure he’s seen the town change, laws change, society change. He served on the Drug Task Force that, in 2004, rounded up 18 minors and young adults on drug charges, several for marijuana distribution. Fifteen years later, in January 2019, he served as the law enforcement liaison to Theory Wellness when it opened the first legal marijuana dispensary in Berkshire County.

I spoke to Chief Storti on Zoom about his background, changes in society and policing over the past decades, and supports the department is establishing to address our community’s substance abuse and mental health needs.

Sheela Clary: How did you end up as a police officer?

Paul Storti: I got into it from my cousin Chris Storti, who was working for Egremont. He took me for a couple ride-alongs. I instantly developed a passion for it. I got sponsored to go to the academy, then got hired as a part-time officer. But I had had no desire to do it up until that point. I was 22.

I’d worked for Berkshire Children’s Community [now Berkshire Meadows] and Hillcrest Educational Centers. That gave me background as far as understanding developmentally disabled children and adolescents. I had a lot of challenging adolescent boys there, but I was able to build relationships with them. I developed a compassionate side and understanding for people’s struggles.

I was working there and also part-time [on the police force] in Sheffield. Chief McGarry sent me to DARE school, so I was also a DARE instructor for Southern Berkshire School District for awhile. I got hired here in Great Barrington in 1995. I took it slowly, even though I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do. There is a skill set that goes into it that you have to develop with time and experience. I took as many classes as I could around police work. I did specialized trainings, went to the FBI police academy in Vermont, got certified in crime photography. I was trained as a defensive tactics instructor. These things are the norm now, but they weren’t the norm back then.

Back then, the hours to be certified as a police officer were much [fewer]. Although there’s no higher education requirement, it’s really encouraged now. A few officers are now in master’s programs in criminal justice, which we didn’t see years ago.

SC: What qualities make for a good police officer?

PS: Compassion. You have to have a good understanding of people and the struggles they’re going through. It’s definitely changed in my career. We are more educated about those struggles now. You have to have a desire to help people, you have to be dedicated to your craft. It takes a lot now.

I worked with officers who were trained in the ’70s and ’80s, versus officers trained in the ’90s, and the training was different. It transitioned into more community-oriented policing in the ’90s, where, prior to that, I think it was more cut and dry, right and wrong. The philosophy behind policing was different.

We’re much more policy-driven now. When I first started, we were given a generic policy and procedure book, and it wasn’t customized to our community. If something came up, you might look at the book. But now, we have continuing education on our policies and procedures, we’re continually reviewing them and modifying them to make sure they meet our needs and that we’re in compliance with them.

You have to understand that our actions have so many ripple effects. Like giving people a speeding ticket. Yes, you’re out there to protect the public and slow people down. But on the other side of the coin, there’s an effect on that person’s family. That ticket could be their rent or food for the month. There’s a time to act. But you also have to understand the collateral damage that we do. 

SC: What do people call you about most often?

PS: Traffic is probably the biggest. One of the first things I did when I took over this position was I changed the way we address those issues. I formed a traffic unit. With the use of our new speed trailer that collects data, we can do more targeted enforcement. It collects the time and the speed of vehicles.

We can look at that and say, “Okay, we have 200 cars between noon and 1 p.m., and 40 percent were exceeding the speed limit.” Versus, between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., there were only 25 and most were going the speed limit. So we can dispatch our resources more efficiently and effectively. We save this information, generate a report, and, on our website, we upload the information.

So say you say, “Can you put your speed trailer on East Street?” We’ll deploy the trailer to East Street, leave it there for a week to collect a week’s worth of data, and load it onto our website. You as the complainant can say, this is the speed people are going, this is the time of day I’m seeing the increase.

We’re getting the information out there. We are sharing the data on our portal so people can access it. We’re also posting our daily log, our daily activity, to be transparent.

SC: What are some of the initiatives people might not be aware of?

PS: I don’t think people understand the mental health stuff that we’ve been doing, for a few years already. We started crisis intervention training a few years ago, an intensive, advanced training, for dealing with the mental health population. We signed up for a pledge to have 10 percent of our force trained as crisis intervention officers, and we are currently at, I believe, 50 percent. My goal is to have 100 percent. I took the training myself and felt it was very valuable, and plays into my philosophy of policing, and gives the officers a good foundation to deal with these mental health issues we come across on a daily basis.

It also supports the co-responder grant program we started over two years ago, with the Brien Center. We have a licensed clinician that responds to mental health calls. We can contact her if we have a situation.

Something we’ve found, especially since starting this program with Ivy [the licensed clinician], is that people feel comfortable calling here. They know we can connect them with her. Who would think, a few years back, that a person who’s struggling would reach out to the police department to ask for help? It would have to escalate to the point of crisis before we’d get involved.

One of the [grant-funded] initiatives we just partnered on is a peer-support counseling and recovery coach model, another tool we can access to deal with the substance abuse issue. From Cara Becker: “The recovery coaches are people [who] are trained to deal with substance use disorders, who are sober themselves. They can talk more intimately with people because they’ve been through it themselves, they know the ins and outs of the system. We thought this was the second greatest thing next to the co-responder program.” [The South County grant, 1 million dollars over three years, is held by Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP). The program is called Rural Recovery Resources, and it is currently seeking a space to rent.]

If you look at what we deal with, you can pretty much bring it back to those two topics, mental health and substance abuse. 

SC: Is domestic violence on the radar in South County as a big problem?

PS: Yes. we’ve had a partnership with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, for many, many years. That’s one of the partners that we’re looking to refresh our training and touch base again, because it’s been so long. I’d like to see if there’s anything we can do better, or do differently. Sometimes a relationship can go stagnant. There are not a lot of residential shelters we can refer people to in South County, for longer-term. We have to send them out for additional services.

SC: What are some of your other partnerships?

PS: We just had a really nice meeting with RSYP, and they are going to be one of [the] primary partners we’ll be using as a resource to identify areas of our under-recognized community we can start conversations with.

We’re also going to contact the schools and [BHRSD Superintendent] Peter Dillon to have some youth ambassadors so we can get a better understanding of what programming they need, especially related to COVID. What struggles are they facing? Is there a way the police department can help? So, if we do get calls, we will understand what the youth are feeling.

We spoke with Volunteers in Medicine the other day, and the biggest thing we learned from them is, with the immigrant population, they carry a lot of stress because there may be a parent who’s undocumented, or who doesn’t speak English, so they are the ones who are the caregivers.

Andres Huertas is one of our [Spanish-speaking] officers, who I’ve known since he was a kid. We coached soccer together, he came on to be my assistant. Now he’s working for us, so that was a nice mentorship there.

With the officers, I had a really good response [to my community outreach program plan]. I have four officers and staff that are really excited. Cara already has relationships established, so we’re able to build off of them, and still work on building new relationships with different groups.

The aim is to develop programs and initiatives to build trust and relationships with some of the under-recognized groups in our community. With that trust and communication will come education, so we can take that back to our officers to educate them about how certain social groups work within our community. To be able to learn from them, see it through their eyes, their lens, how certain things affect them, and how we can serve them better.

SC: You’ve responded to terrible things. Suicides, overdoses, fatal car accidents. I don’t know how you get that out of your head.

PS: You don’t. Those are tough. When I was younger it seemed like it was a lot easier, so I don’t know if it’s old age, or because I have kids, but over time you get filled up. Some of the stuff we see, it will take a toll on you. That’s why I’m really pushing to have some mental health initiatives for officers, for first responders, so they have the tools to manage stress, to process that in a healthy manner. It’s such a large issue, and it’s so important. I wrote a grant to fund this, and didn’t get it, but we can try again.

Police officers are taught to hold their emotions, to check it inside. We have to be able to manage critical incidents, to go in there, hold our emotions down, manage and mitigate to keep everything under control. But we’re never taught how to decompress, how to get rid of it. So it just stays in you, and builds and builds, and that’s when you have somebody overreacting, saying something inappropriate because they lost their temper. My goal is to give them the resources to manage those feelings so they are less likely to have those incidents out in the field when they’re faced with tough situations. It’s a different way of thinking. If we can help one person, it’s worth it.

SC: In an ideal world, how will the force be different in five or 10 years?

PS: The community will trust us, will communicate with us, be comfortable with us. My goal is to get a good understanding of what their needs are and that they have the trust and comfort to know we are here to help them. We know where they’re coming from. As long as we can get that conversation going, and keep it constructive, that’s the key.