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Springfield YMCA, Police Partner To Reduce Community Tensions


An effort is under way in Springfield, Massachusetts to portray police officers in a positive light. The initiative announced today is a counterpoint to months of recent protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield and the city’s police department are partnering in an initiative to highlight the service of several of the city’s cops who are volunteering for educational and athletic activities with children and teenagers.

Springfield YMCA President and CEO Kirk Smith said he came up with the idea for the “Y not US (Unite Springfield)” initiative as a way to reduce any tensions that may exist between police and the city’s minority communities.

" I do think mistrust is a big issue, and the best way to break that down is to communicate and high light  initiatives like the one we are talking about today," Smith said.

Smith said the initiative is not intended to sweep problems under the rug, but to recognize concerns and to bring out what he said are “huge misunderstandings about law enforcement.”   He said the majority of police work involves public service, not arresting people.

" I would say the relationship ( between the city's minority communities and Springfield police) is mostly positive, but not without challenges," said Smith.

Smith said he hoped if the Springfield initiative succeeds in bringing police and the community closer together it will be a model for the nation.

" If you Google Springfield, Massachusetts there is no shortage of negativity that will pop up, so why not use this as an opportunity to highlight some of the great things happening in our city and use it as a model for other municipalities, hopefully," said Smith.

To promote better police-community relations, about twenty Springfield police officers will volunteer at the Y in activities such as reading to pre-school children, and coaching basketball, boxing and baseball.

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri said there was no pressure on police officers to volunteer.  He said the program participants will be off-duty and won’t receive any stipend.

" All credit goes to the men and women in uniform," said Barbieiri.  " Public service is in their DNA. They want to do it. They want to work with the community residents. My thanks goes out to them."

Barbieri launched the initiative Tuesday by reading a story to children in a pre-school program.

Barbieri, who became police commissioner last June, has made community policing a priority. He plans to put more officers in uniform on the city’s streets by reducing the number of investigators.

His plan calls for a proactive approach to public safety that includes expanding citywide a successful neighborhood anti-crime program that is heavily dependent on residents and business owners working hand-in-hand with police.

" There is a limited number of police officers, but there are 156,000 people in this city who could work with the police and cooperate with us. The key is to establish legitimacy with those residents so they understand we do want to resolve crime  in their neighborhood and work with them on greater issues."

The decisions not to bring charges against police officers for the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson and Staten Island led to protests in Springfield.

Last year, when the Springfield City Council considered putting the police department in the hands of an appointed police commission, several people said at a public hearing that blacks and Hispanics in Springfield feared the police.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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