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Objecting To Calls To Defund, Chief Wynn Discusses Rising Pittsfield Police Spending

A uniformed officer stands in front of the American flag
Pittsfield Police Department
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn

As Pittsfield, Massachusetts sets its 2021 spending plan, its police force is one of the few departments to see an increase in Mayor Linda Tyer’s proposed budget. With conversations about defunding police abounding, Police Chief Michael Wynn tells WAMC that he opposes the idea. He also explained why his department is seeing a nearly 5% spending increase to an almost $11.5 million yearly budget.

WYNN: There's a lot of different meanings that are being batted around about defunding, you know. Some have been extreme, the complete disillusion of police departments, and some are reducing the budget, to reallocate resources somewhere else. You've followed our department for some time now, you know from our perspective, we're already under budgeted. We run a pretty lean operation. So, you know, we think that we do very well with the resources that we get. But there's not a lot of, there's not a lot of extra within our budget. We get asked to do a lot of different tasks. And we do that with fairly minimal resources. So, you know, I don't think there's any room to have that conversation about our particular budget.

WAMC: Some of the ideas around defunding police departments also mean reallocating those funds towards other departments doing work around homelessness, drug use reduction, things that often fall on to your platter that might be better served with other departments picking up some of that weight. Do you think there's anything to that idea of reallocating those responsibilities and resources to other departments?

I think that all of those areas of concern, particularly substance abuse, homelessness, family violence, those are all areas that desperately need resources. You know, in Berkshire County, and with Pittsfield in particular, we work cooperatively with other departments or other agencies to address those issues. But we're often the the first call anybody makes because we're, of all of those departments and organizations, with the exception of the hotline, we're the only one that's 24/7. And so while I agree that those issues need resources, I don't think that they should be taken from the police department.

In a year of broad cuts to the Pittsfield municipal budget, the police are one of the few areas that is seeing an increase of just under 5% in the proposed budget. Can you walk me through what those increases amount to in the operational function of the department?

So that's all contractual obligations. When we went into the budget process, we were given our instructions to level fund everything. And the only way I could level fund personnel was if I cut positions. And in my follow up instructions, I was directed not to cut any positions. So that's all contractual obligations that were settled over the past year.

I'm seeing that the overtime for the Pittsfield police can run up a bill of millions for the city. What leads to overtime being billed to the city from the police force?

Vacant positions.

Can you expand on that a little bit?

So, you know, again, we've said for a number of years that the call volume that we maintain for a city our size, we should actually have a staff of about 120. We've never had that during my time with the Pittsfield Police Department. We generally run somewhere in the high 80s to low 90s. But we have considerable call volume. And if we're going to be able to answer calls at that pace, we know that there's a certain number of people that we have to have available to handle calls for service at any given time. And when those numbers- When our staff gets below those numbers, we have to hire replacements to come in. So between shifts, staffing, and major investigations, which require resources when the investigation is current, that pretty much accounts for all of our overtime expenditures.

I'm interested about that, the officers that are budgeted for but are not yet hired. What happens to those funds, that money set aside to hire people when there aren't folks actually in those positions at this point?

Well, we have to have the money in the budget to pursue recruiting those people. So if the money is in the budget, and we don't actually fill the vacancies, that usually get shifted to offset deficits elsewhere in the budget, usually in the overtime line.

And at this point, how many positions are budgeted for, but not filled in the department?

There's 15 unbudgeted- Or, unfilled positions right now.

As far as spending in the department, who manages that? Is that the responsibility of the city itself or is that an internal department function?

I'm sorry. Can you be more specific about spending?

As far as like approving overtime, budgeting for over time, things of this nature. Is this a budget you developed with the city proper or internally within the police department?

Well, I develop the budget with the city through the finance department, but we manage the budget after it's approved internally.

I'd like to turn now to a couple of emails that surfaced over the past week between you and city councilors in Pittsfield. Specifically, you talk about in this email communications between the Pittsfield Police Department and state police and the National Guard in Massachusetts. I want to turn to that. We've spoken a little bit about the relationship between the city and state troopers. I want to know first, is there an update on any plans to augment Troop B here in Pittsfield, from the state level?

No, I've received no additional information since we spoke last.

And as far as the National Guard, were they to come out to Pittsfield, as you referenced in the emails, would that be a decision driven by Pittsfield, driven by the National Guard, driven by the governor? Where's the origin of that?

In this case?


I'm not actually positive where that decision was made. As I stated, we were on a group conference with representatives of the National Guard and the state police and they shared the plan they had developed with us. That's the augmentation plan that I referenced. They didn't specify who was involved in that decision.

Based on what you've seen so far in protests in Pittsfield, do you think that the need for extra law enforcement is still something that that the city should pursue?

That we should- Just based on the activity so far? No.

So, what have you learned from the protests so far, and then how to police them in a way that that you think, serves the community the best?

Well, in both demonstrations that were held in Pittsfield, as we stated at the time, our role is to protect and secure the safety of the protesters who are engaged in peaceful, lawful protesting. We also have to understand that if somebody decides to act in another way, we have to have a plan to deal with that as well. You know, we're fortunate in Berkshire County that we have robust mutual aid and we're able to rely on our surrounding communities for assistance, if and when we require it.

In the email that I was mentioning a moment ago, you talked about holding back some information from Mayor Linda Tyer, due to operational sensitivity. Can you sort of expand on that definition for me so I can get a sense of what needs to get to the mayor's desk and what doesn't, from your vantage point?

My general approach to communicating information to the mayor is, if something is going to cause her to have to answer questions or something is likely to be reported in the media, I don't want it to be surprised so I give her a heads up. But she's not a law enforcement officer. So I don't give her details of our our operational deployments or our strategies.

Given the national dialogue around the subject, I'm interested - Does the police department here in Pittsfield use chokeholds in its practice, in the city?

No, we don't.

Are you revisiting any policies given this national conversation about police reform?

We revisit policies on a constant basis. But yes, we've started reviewing some of our policies in the last couple weeks.

What are some of those policies?

We're taking another look at our use of force policy, although we just reissued that one last year. That's, that's the first one. And then we've got some- We've had some questions raised by some community members about some particular pieces of equipment and those pieces of equipment are not necessarily addressed in any policy at this time. So we have to take a look at that.

When you look at use of force, what are you looking for in this reexamination?

Just that we're consistent with the federal standards and best practices.

There's been conversation in the community about the role of the Israeli military in training American law enforcement. I know you visited Israel some years back to learn about security and law enforcement in that country. Could you expand a little bit on what exactly you learned and what you experienced while you were in Israel?

Yeah, I'm familiar with some of that conversation, and I certainly wasn't trained in any physical skills while I was visiting Israel. We were there for the purpose of examining their security posture around cultural areas and religious institutions, and looking at how they handled general preventative security. You know, it's been seven years, I didn't have a chance to go back and look at my my journal notes, but, you know, they do a lot of things cooperatively between their law enforcement entity and the military that we don't do here. So, you know, there was a lot of food for thought, on some of their community policing initiatives and some of the surveillance programs, but not a lot of direct correlation.

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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