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Berkshire Police Departments Adapt To The COVID-19 Era

An SUV is parked on the street in front of a brick building with "Pittsfield Police" on its doors
Josh Landes
A Pittsfield Police vehicle parked outside of the station at 39 Allen Street

Police departments around Berkshire County are adapting their service as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies.

Pittsfield, Massachusetts is the home to the county’s largest police department, with a staff of almost 100 working in the city of almost 43,000. While chronically understaffed, the department’s capabilities are even more reduced than normal as it takes measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“Some of our offices, if their service isn’t something that is primary or essential we have stood them down while we wait to get more information and to figure out how we’re going to proceed," said Lieutenant Gary Traversa. “Our records office, firearms, our fleet maintenance, station tours, a number of different capabilities that we have that we bring people into the station we’ve slowed down or stopped.”

Installation of child safety seats, fingerprinting services, firearms licensing, in-person sex offender registration, and medication disposal in the department’s lobby have also been suspended or curtailed.

Visits to the station at 39 Allen Street are discouraged, and anyone who does enter the building will be dealt with through the thick glass of the lobby desk window. While the PPD will respond to emergency 911 calls, some new protocols are in place.

“We have some specific instructions for dispatch as far as handling as many calls as they can over the phone," said Traversa. "Citizens who call, if it’s something that an officer can handle over the phone, they may get a call back from an officer to avoid that face-to-face contact.”

Traversa says the PPD’s patrol is fully staffed.

“But we have made some changes in what we’re looking for our staff to do in terms of arrival to work, how we conduct roll-call, cleanliness of our fleet, how arrests are handled, how prisoner transports are handled,” he told WAMC.

Craig DeSantis is the acting chief of the Lee police department and its staff of around a dozen full-timers. He says while the office will offer full service to the town of around 5,700 10 miles south of Pittsfield where Route 20 meets the Mass Pike, its priorities have shifted.

“Anything that relates to the daily safety of the public we’re prioritizing, and as things come up, we’ll deal with them on a secondary nature when and where we have to – such as, a motor vehicle stop for a plate light might not take precedence in these times,” said the acting chief.

In North Adams, Police Chief Jason Wood says all 24 members of his staff are at work serving the city of around 13,000. Like Pittsfield, he’s taken steps to limit the number of in-person interactions the department offers by encouraging people to call instead of visiting the office and installing a two-way video conferencing system at the front door. The staff is also receiving new instructions.

“I put some directives out that really urges basically good hygiene, using your best common sense," said Wood. "It’s a tricky position to be in, because if we have a combative subject or something like that we actually have to put our hands on people and things can get messy.”

Wood harbors his own fears about how the situation could further deteriorate.

“If it continues and the virus continues to spread, if the government were to move toward a shelter-in-place nationally or even Massachusetts locally," said the chief, "I would worry at some point that if supplies ran out that people may kind of take things into their own hands and take what they need.”

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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