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Pittsfield City Council Votes In A New Police Review Board

Josh Landes

The Pittsfield City Council has voted to establish a new Police Advisory and Review Board.

The board, approved Tuesday, is the city’s third such attempt in the past four years. After the first two versions died under previous administrations, Mayor Linda Tyer says this one is built to last.

“The proposal that we’ve put forward to the city council – the chief and I – is actually a huge improvement over what is currently in place for what is now known as the Public Safety Advisory Committee,” she told WAMC.

Alongside Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, Tyer said the new board expanded its abilities.

“We’re calling it the Police Advisory and Review Board – will actually have more opportunities to engage with the chief and to provide advice and guidance to the mayor, the city council, and the police department on matters related to police department interactions within the community,” she said.

The proposal faced criticism from citizen activists pushing for a more stringent oversight committee and council Vice President John Krol – who said it “lacked teeth.”

“There are people who are calling for an oversight, which is not something I support," said Tyer. "I believe that’s a step too far.”

After passing through the city council’s ordinance and rules subcommittee in December, it made its way to the full council for final approval.

Ward 3 councilor Nicholas Caccamo – who spearheaded the amendments to the draft through the subcommittee – brought four changes before the full council. The first concerned to whom and when the board would be able to communicate its findings.

“So I’d like to add back in the language that says the board may as it deems appropriate summarize and comment on citizen concerns and transmit the reports or findings to the chief of police, the mayor, or city council," said Caccamo. "So, just giving it some more flexibility. And that was in some original language that the mayor’s proposal has.”

The second change was about eligibility for board membership. Caccamo moved to simplify the requirements down to just city residency and that members not work for the city or have immediate family in the police department. That scrapped a requirement that members be above the age of 18.

“None of our other boards sort of have age requirements, and again, it’s up to the discretion of the mayor – whoever they want to appoint – to see fit,” said the councilor.

Mayor Tyer was present to support Caccamo’s amendment, and responded to Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli’s questions about the move by pointing to the city’s high schools.

“I think there’s value, maybe in, for example, having the two school council presidents maybe being appointed, and they may not be 18," said the mayor. "And I think there’s value in that youth perspective.”

Simonelli noted that the school committee has student representatives.

Another scrapped requirement would have demanded board members pass a background check.

“Given the scope of this advisory board, it’s not going to have access to confidential documents that I think some boards do have access to that is not reflected in this," said Caccamo. "So I think that inclusivity has been a theme tonight, and I think this does achieve some inclusivity.”

Councilor At-Large Pete White agreed that background checks could be prohibitively restrictive to potential board members.

Another change simply corrected a typo – albeit a critical one that would have limited the scope of training required for board members by leaving out the word “not” in the phrase “including but limited to.”

The fourth and final change was about the number of members the board should have. That number has vacillated from 9 to 13 between drafts, accompanied by vigorous debate around what constitutes a workable number. The council ultimately kept the ordinance and rules subcommittee’s choice of no more than 11 members.

On a final vote, the ordinance for the new board passed through the council with a sole “no” vote from Krol – making it the most substantive external police review measure in Berkshire County to date.

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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