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Turnover Of Small Town Police Chiefs, Influence On Public Confidence

In recent months there have been a number of changes in police leadership within the small towns that dot western Massachusetts.

Whenever there is leadership change in an organization, there are going to be growing pains. However, those pains may be longer and more damaging when it pertains to small town police chiefs who are replaced because of alleged wrongdoing. Brian Buchner is the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE.

“When it’s the chief law enforcement executive that certainly has, I think, greater potential to strain the relationship between the police department and the community it serves because the public has an expectation that the chief law enforcement executive really sets the tone for the department,” said Buchner.

Over the past year, the towns of Lee, Egremont and Stockbridge have all hired new police chiefs, while the status of the police chief in Hinsdale remains up in the air. In Lee, former Chief Joseph Buffis was fired over alleged misappropriation of town funds following a separate incident in which he was brought up on federal money laundering and extortion charges. In Egremont, former Chief Reena Bucknell received a vote of no confidence from her officers after questions were raised about her handling of the department.Chief Jack Rinchich is the president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

“It does change the perception of the public,” Rinchich said. “They may judge the entire department based on one officer’s actions, which is unfortunate. It should never be done in any organization. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the wash water.”

Rinchich says those in law enforcement are held to a higher standard, so alleged wrongdoing can lead to immediate action from elected officials because of pressure from the public.

“Unfortunately police officers are not always afforded the same rights as citizens in terms of due process and you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” he said. “Sometimes people are quick to judge a police chief simply because of his position.”

Buchner says there are more than 130 civilian oversight agencies with some input or authority over law enforcement. He says it’s important to have an independent agency ensure laws are being followed and internal investigations are handled properly, but could prove troublesome in small towns.

“Sometimes in small cities that’s difficult because people know each other and there are strong relationships between various city, county or state functions,” Buchner said. “So it’s incredibly important in those places that there be independent or objective investigations because it’s even more likely to have stronger ties between the parties that are investigating themselves.”

Rinchich says a close-knit community can affect how questions of law enforcement actions are handled.

“To some extent because in a large agency more people might be aware of a certain situation, whereas in a small town, even though people are socially-connected, sometimes things are just quietly smoothed over,” said Rinchich.

In Hinsdale, Chief Nancy Daniels has been placed on paid administrative leave after failing to complete state-mandated training. Buchner says being put on paid administrative leave is common practice for any type of investigation or questioning period regarding law enforcement, but it can be frustrating for the public.

“It creates this sense of limbo where no one really knows what’s going to happen,” Buchner said. “Those investigations are typically opaque and the public doesn’t get to see what’s being investigated. All they know is that this person was accused of wrongdoing, they’re not carrying out their responsibilities as a chief law enforcement executive, but we’re still paying them as though they were in that position.”

In Stockbridge, Police Chief Rick Wilcox is set to retire in February after 28 years as the top dog. State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox says police chief turnover is becoming common in the Berkshires because of the aging population and the state-mandated retirement age of 65. Due to this, he says small towns could look to collaborate with each other in the future.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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