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Pittsfield Council Narrowly Approves Trimmed Police Budget

A screenshot of a Zoom conference with dozens of participants
A still from the June 15th, 2020 Pittsfield City Council Zoom meeting

Monday night, the Pittsfield City Council approved an amended police spending plan for 2021, along with accepting the city’s fire and emergency management budgets unaltered.

The hearing came after an unresolved and emotional debate over cuts to the school department the week before.

The opening public comment portion of the video conference featured one caller after another with the same message.

“As you consider the Pittsfield Police Department’s budget request for FY21, I’m asking not only that you decline the requested 4.8% budget increase, but also consider the reduction of each line item to its FY19 levels," said Pittsfielder Meg Bossong. “There’s no amount of money that we can spend on policing that will buy our city safety, because safety does not bloom from policing.”

She was the first of over a dozen members of the public to speak out against the proposed $525,000 increase to the police department budget to nearly $11.5 million. The rising spending on the department continues a trend, with the budget growing by $2.5 million since 2017 alone.

“I’m asking this out a deep love for the city of Pittsfield, and what is possible if we invest in change in our city," said Bossong. "If we invest in solutions outside of policing for the challenges our city faces.”

Motions by Councilor At-Large Earl Persip saw $50,000 cuts to the proposed $165,600 Student Officers Expenses as well as the proposed $120,000 special events overtime line items. Another $85,000 was reallocated from the proposed $4.3 million patrol officers line item – which accounts for as many as 15 unfilled positions – to hiring more clinicians to accompany officers on calls. Police Chief Michael Wynn praised the work of Richard Collins, the social worker from the Brien Center who works with his department.

“It’s gotten the point where officers and dispatchers ask for his response before they’ll even take a call if we’re dealing with somebody with mental illness,” he told the council.

As she did in the earlier school budget hearing, Ward 1 councilor Helen Moon led criticism of the budget, noting the city and department’s frequent inability to account for spending, and pushed for even further cuts – though none were to come.

“I feel like there is a lot of support from our councilors and our administration about Black Lives Matter, and what’s happening nationally," said Moon. "And I just honestly think that unless we’re following that up with budget appropriations and policy changes, I think it’s just lip service.”

Persip said he resented the remarks.

“As a black man, I kind of take that insulting," he said. "I take these issues seriously. My vote I take are from my experiences with the police, who – I grew up on the west side of Pittsfield. I grew up on John Street. So I experienced that my whole life.”

Ward 6 councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi – who also pushed back against additional cuts – also bristled at Moon’s statements.

“We can’t just gut one department and think that that’s going to fix our problem," she said. "Where is the money going to go? If it just goes into another department that still doesn’t fix the problems. We have bigger structural issues that if we build our way there, we will make real change – but we can do this also through putting through putting forward petitions as councilors, through speaking to our delegation on the state level.”

In her questioning of the chief, Moon coaxed revelations out of Wynn about out how the department does its budgeting. He said the Contractual Allowances line item – which went up 17.3% in the proposed budget to $177,000 – included officers’ uniforms.

“So then I’m confused as to why there is a separate line item for uniforms for $30,000,” responded Moon.

“So the total in the uniform line item used to be I want to say $70,000 or $75,000, which is the actual expense," said Wynn. "And so when we figured out what we were spending on individual officers, we moved that into the contractual. But there are uniform needs that come up that are not individual to the officer.”

Ward 3 councilor Nicholas Caccamo shared his own data on the department’s ShotSpotter gunfire detection technology – a line item of $240,000 for the 2021 budget – that contradicted Wynn’s statements about it improving over time.

“It has a 70% false positive rate," said the councilor. "Officers are still responding to those calls.”

Caccamo did not move to cut the line item.

Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell spoke out against cuts, saying that over his nine years on the council the city had worked hard to build up its police force and echoed one of President Trump’s latest catchphrases.

“We have gangs. We have drugs. They’re running rampant! I don’t understand what we’re doing," said Connell. "Are we drinking the Kool-Aid because everything else that has been happening in the world? OK? In Minneapolis? Is that what we’re looking at? I mean, all lives matter, sure, but you have to have law and order.”

Moon said it was dangerous to suggest Pittsfield was immune to national issues and conversations, and that for Pittsfield’s minority community, interactions with police are very different from what they are for city councilors.

“The black and brown community specifically in Pittsfield has asked us to reallocate dollars that are going to the Pittsfield police department to serve the most vulnerable in our community and not criminalize them for issues that are out of poverty, of being black, and of substance use and mental illness," said the councilor. "I think we that really need to take stock on how we’re appropriating these dollars.”

The council ultimately accepted the amended budget in a tight 6-5 vote. The fire department budget of just under $8.5 million – a 0.4% increase from last year – passed unaltered, as did the $26,400 Emergency Management budget. The Pittsfield City Council’s next budget hearing – which includes a continuation of debate over the school department budget – is scheduled for Wednesday night.

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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