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Subcommittee Approves Pittsfield Police Advisory Ordinance

A Pittsfield City Council subcommittee has approved a new draft of an attempt to reboot a citizens’ police advisory board.

The city’s third attempt to revive an external review of its police department came into sharper focus at Tuesday’s meeting – though not without some protest.

“The mayor at some point decided that rather than have a dialogue with citizens who brought the issue forward, she would have a dialogue with a citizen or citizens who already agreed with her, and the result is what you see before you. I just got it. Fortunately, there’s only 10 words different from the mayor’s proposal which itself is only 10 words different from what’s in the code now," said activist Igor Greenwald of the Civil Liberties Pittsfield Group.

Greenwald was referring to a draft of Mayor Linda Tyer’s Police Advisory and Review Board ordinance as amended by a subcommittee of the Berkshire Branch of the NAACP. The subcommittee is co-chaired by Drew Herzig, chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission. Herzig was a signatory of the October 2017 Civil Liberties Pittsfield letter to the mayor advising her and police chief Michael Wynn to create “a Public Safety Oversight Board tasked with authoring an annual report on local policing, with space for the Police Department’s key messages as well as feedback from a broad cross-section of community and vital annual police statistics.” The letter called for a board with investigatory powers in the mold of Springfield and Cambridge, Massachusetts  – something the mayor and police chief have publically rejected and that the NAACP Social Justice Action committee did not include in its amended version of the draft.

“What’s proposed here is just a whitewashed board that’s going to whitewash the conclusions of the Pittsfield Police Department,” said Greenwald.

Herzig defended the NAACP’s draft, which Police Chief Wynn and representatives of the city confirmed had received their blessings. He said that it specifically addressed training the board – which had been unmentioned in the mayor’s original draft – and added an official citizen’s complaint form.

“The ordinance itself is kind of open ended, and when it says there’s no fact finding in it there’s nothing that denies fact finding," said Rebecca Thompson, co-chair of the NAACP Social Justice Action Committee. “Under this proposal, a citizens advisory group could develop information tools on how to file a citizen’s complaint, get information out to the public, it could assist in supporting individual citizens in filing complaints, it can analyze investigative reports for recurring issues including holding hearings of stakeholders to gather information and make recommendations about those things, where it’s section 12 processes, the efficiency of body cams.”

Councilor John Krol – another signatory of the October 2017 letter – said the ordinance “lacked teeth” but was “better than nothing.”

“It is really not – I don’t believe – in the overall spirit of what was originally intended when this process began,” said Krol. He asked city solicitor Rich Dohoney what onus would be on the police department to respond to recommendations made by the advisory board.

“There’s no onus to respond," said Dohoney. "There’s no onus to take action. As pointed out in the last amendment is – there’s three different bodies that will receive reports and recommendations from this. The chief of police, who sets the policies and procedures for the city of Pittsfield.”

Dohoney said the other two groups are the mayor and the city council, and said that while the board cannot “compel any action,” lawmakers could.

“The city council can make whatever ordinances in its authority, and certainly the mayor as the appointing authority can take whatever action he or she may deem appropriate,” said the city solicitor.

Krol underscored the board’s lack of authority by noting that council referrals to the mayor often go unresponded to: “It’s a nice way of filing something, often.”

Dohoney remained enthusiastic.

“Daylight’s the best disinfected, and this will provide a level of transparency the city has never seen with regard to the police department,” he said.

A series of amendments led by subcommittee member Nicholas Caccamo – Ward 3 councilor – saw the ordinance take on a new level of detail: a requirement of the now 11-member board to file an annual report on complaints and recommendations, as well as term limits, requirements to serve, and more.

The ordinance advanced to the next city council meeting in January on a 4-1 vote. Krol objected, saying it should be tabled for further discussion.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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