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Pittsfield Police See Uptick In Domestic Violence During Pandemic

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

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Chief Michael Wynn’s role as the city’s deputy emergency management director has meant he is coordinating county-wide responses to the crisis. Wynn spoke with WAMC Wednesday about how his department is handling the risks of policing during the coronavirus outbreak, an uptick in domestic violence reports, and what role the department plays in enforcing public health guidelines on the streets of Pittsfield.

We're working under a, an emergency staffing plan. So our regular staffing schedule has been completely changed. And, while our call volume remains up, our efforts have been to try to minimize the number of people that are in custody. So, a lot more summonses, a lot more release on personal recognizance, a lot more no-cash bail.

What kind of crimes have you seen rising during the pandemic?

The incidence of crime appears to be comparatively steady, with a couple of minor, notable exceptions. Early on, after the non-essential business closures, we did see an incremental spike in commercial breaking-and-enterings. Obviously, the businesses were closed and people weren't checking them as regularly. So, we saw a small number of those, which, in comparison to what we normally see, was an uptick, but not not a major uptick. It was, it was an anomaly. And then the other criminal offense that we're seeing an increase in, that's concerning, is domestic-related violence.

And how are calls like that handled in the COVID-19 era?

They get handled the same way that they always would. The laws of the Commonwealth don't allow for as much discretion with those, as other issues do. So if arrest is indicated, the arrest is made, but again, Once the arrest is made, we're gonna work with the courts and the clerk magistrates to try to make sure that they're in custody for as short as possible.

What kind of emergency services are you focusing on, in your capacity as police chief during the pandemic?

In addition to serving as the city's Chief of Police, I also serve as the Deputy Emergency Management Director. And my principal focus for the last 40+ days has been coordinating our emergency management efforts with other agencies and other municipalities. So I'm basically providing the liaison function between NEMA and the Central Berkshire communities that are represented by the Central Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee. So, kind of providing communications and resource management for a group of about a dozen municipalities and making sure that their needs are met from the Commonwealth and doing resource sharing between those communities.

In that capacity, what kind of need are you seeing in the community and what areas you think the commonwealth could better address?

It's changing, day-to-day and hour-to-hour. Several weeks ago, we were really concerned with making sure that we had adequate personal protective equipment, or PPE for first responders. And then, that kind of evolved a little bit, and we got orders en-route, and we kind of got good supply lines in place with NEMA. So then we started looking at secondary agencies like, doctors offices and other medical providers to make sure they had what they needed. Recently, we're assisting with both resource management and education, for nonprofit community providers. So we've done some resource management for congregate living facilities, shelters, other nonprofit service providers. And, you know, the Commonwealth is, has, stepped up in a big way, as everybody is learning as they go. So, the communications and the resource management chains, or lines have been refined several times. Right now, one of the things- and actually I had a conversation with NEMA about this, this morning- is education. So, six weeks ago, what a nonprofit organization might have been suggested or recommended, or what they might have been told they needed, is vastly different than what they might actually need now. But some of that communication is not occurring as rapidly as maybe we would like. Without naming the agency, we received a request for some personal protective equipment from our local community agency this week. And it was a massive request. And they don't, they don't provide medical services. So some of the stuff they were asking for- just, it appeared to be excessive. And when we followed up with them, and the Massa-Massachusetts Emergency Management agents followed up with them, they were relying on very old and generic guidance that they had been provided with six weeks ago. And we were able to educate them and get that massive request down to a much smaller, much more reasonable request.

We're entering the warmer part of the year here in Berkshire County. I'm interested- are you concerned about folks maybe not following public health and safety protocols as things heat up in Pittsfield? And if so, what's your plan for it?

I think everybody is concerned about that, not just because of the warmer weather, but because of the duration of the emergency. People are looking to get outside. My plan, our plan, from the police department's point of view, is to support our public health partners. Public Health is responsible for the advisories and the orders and our role is simply to assist them as, as they may require.

So, I'm interested if you can expand on that a little bit. I've seen, for example, Pittsfield cops showing up to various outdoor recreational areas to dissuade people from congregating. What other extraordinary public health responses are you guys taking on at this time during the pandemic?

It's changing not only day-to-day but hour-to-hour. The enforcement of the Executive Orders, the Stay-at-Home Orders, or the non-essential business orders... The principal enforcement agency for those is the local Boards of Health. So they're, they're non-criminal offenses, and our role is to support our public health partners. So, the public health, as we're really concerned about the use of playground equipment. Our role is to advise people that we see on the playground equipment of the nature of the order and the requirements of the order and ask them to disband. If they comply, great. We've done our job. If they don't, we have to refer enforcement of that to the Board of Health. We may ultimately end up issuing a citation or something like that, but it's going to be under their authority. So yesterday, the Department of Public Health came out with new guidance for Farmers' Markets. And in the guidance that they put out, they didn't make local Boards of Health the principal enforcement. They made local law enforcement, the principal enforcement. So we don't know how that's gonna play out. Because if the Farmers' Market opens, and there are non-compliant people there, it will fall on my department to enforce that order. We're going to need some guidance from Public Health about what that enforcement should look like.

Budgeting for 2020 is affecting all kinds of departments on the municipal, state and federal level. Looking into next year, how is the pandemic shaping how you plan out a budget for the Pittsfield Police Department?

It's impacting our budget planning process in every regard. I just recently resubmitted my initial draft budget. It's been difficult. We have staffing obligations that we, we're going to have to continue to meet. And we have contractual obligations that we're, we're obligated to, to continue to meet. But obviously, we know that without having solid revenue numbers, then we can't accurately predict what our budget may look like. So everything other than our personnel items has pretty much been level-funded or cut back to previous fiscal year amounts.

So, there's at the very least not going to be an increase in the budget. Are you expecting a lower budget?

Again, what I'm looking at, and working at is a draft. And actually, because of the contractual obligations, there probably will be an increase, but it won't be an increase in keeping with the increase that we would have needed to keep our staff and our expenses.

Among the staff of the PPD, how many folks have, have actually gotten COVID-19, at this point?

We had six department members test positive.

And what was the protocol in that situation?

We received the- well, they were symptomatic, and they were put out of work. And they were tested. And then when the test results came back, we, we adhere to the regular Emergency Essential Worker Protocols. They had to remain out of work until they had been isolated for 14 days and then they had to be screened by Public Health before they could come back to work.

And at this point, what is the staffing looking like at the department? I know it's often understaffed, how many folks are showing up to work every day for the PPD?

So, our staffing going into this was 85- which oh, I'm sorry- 86, which is below our, our full funded staffing, but it's consistent with where we've been. And under our emergency staffing plan, half of the department is working at any one time.

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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