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New England News

Emails Show How Pittsfield, Law Enforcement Prepared For Spring Protests

Emails obtained by WAMC News have shone a light on how officials all the way from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to the federal level reacted to the Black Lives Matters protests that sprung up in May in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. WAMC spoke with Police Chief Michael Wynn about what he learned from the protests, and why he referred to city councilors as “insane” when they pushed back against a narrative that Antifa agitators were coming to the Berkshires.

In the photo gallery above, you can see the emails WAMC’s Freedom of Information Act request uncovered from the city of Pittsfield – from a deputy fire chief asking if his department should be armed to an FBI briefing on federal statutes that could be leveled at protesters.

WYNN: My first takeaway is I'm grateful for the relationships we have locally. And that all of our Pittsfield and Berkshire County protests that have been held have been respectful and peaceful. And I'm thankful and grateful for that. And my second takeaway is that I'm also very glad for the mutual aid relationships we have in Berkshire County, that in the event stuff did not turn out as peaceful that we had some contingency planning in place.

WAMC: We've had a lot of conversations about exactly what it means to request a presence of state troopers or National Guard forces in Pittsfield. You told me and some city councilors in emails that essentially this was not a request that you made, but rather a statewide plan, though you did specifically in one email request for Major Habel, I'm going to quote here, "if the troop does get a joint MSP Massachusetts National Guard quick reaction force, I'd like to request that at least a small element of that force be split off and pre-deployed to the Pittsfield armory to lessen their response time." That is literally at face value a request for an augmented presence in the city. So I wanted to know, could you sort of split the difference there between what you communicated and that request in that email?

Well, to be clear, I did not think that there was something imminent going on and put out an SOS for Mass state police troopers or National Guardsmen to come to Pittsfield. As you read, in response to a communication that that might be available. I requested that the major consider splitting the elements. And I acknowledge that the day that it happened, that I had had a conversation with Major Habel about moving some of whatever resources he got beyond the Pioneer Valley.

My second question is about the warnings that were circulated inside the city around potential outside agitators. In the ADL Center on Extremism report, they identify white supremacist and right-wing militia groups in an almost two to one margin to left-wing agitators. I'm interested why the communications that emerged were specifically about Antifa and not about white supremacist groups and right-wing militia groups given the intelligence that seemed to indicate that they were more of a threat.

No, in hindsight, we probably just should have stuck to the categorization of "agitators." But in the conference call, Zoom call that we were in, Antifa was the descriptor that was used, and it was the descriptor that I repeated and passed on. You know, that may have been an error.

In an email to Ed Culver, who is the Massachusetts State Police liaison with the district attorney's office here in Berkshire County, you refer to, I believe, the city council as "insane," referring to their responses that "they don't care that Boston burned. They see this as a response to Minneapolis. Unbelievable." I'm interested- Can you explain that statement? Do you think that the city council's reaction was, as you put it, "insane" or are there specific members that you were speaking of?

I was angry and frustrated and expressed my frustration in an email. And I probably should not have done that.

In retrospect, some of the counselors did point out that threats of Antifa were proven to have been inflated or misrepresented in the media and by law enforcement. In retrospect, does that affect your thoughts on how the council reacted to that press release from you guys?

Again, you know, in a later email I said, if I had this information, and I had done nothing and something had gone wrong, I'd have done wrong. And if I had this information, and a true, a MSP true presence showed up in Pittsfield, and we hadn't given our council some forewarning, we'd have been wrong. So, you know, we made a judgement based on the information we had at the time, and I have to live with that judgment. You know, hindsight is 20/20, we learn lessons every time. If something like this were to happen in the future, I'd have to take all of these lessons and make a judgment call at that time.

In that email to Major Habel that you're referencing, you also said that the "mayor tried to keep our partners informed and they use it to stick it to us. It's infuriating." Who did you feel like was "sticking it to you?" When you say your partners do you mean the city council or the community groups who are also included in that communication?

No, most of the communication we got that evening with questions came from members of the council. And basically, they were questioning that in response to civil disobedience or peaceful protest our response was to call more police. And that wasn't what happened.

Going back to those right-wing or neo-Nazi groups, and some of the communiques that I got referred to, is the Pittsfield Police Department or mutual aid partners in the county keeping tabs on potential groups of that nature?

I’m not going to get into specific details about our intelligence efforts. We keep intelligence watch on many, many groups. But as you're aware, our intelligence capacity here in the city of Pittsfield is essentially one person. So we rely on intelligence reports that come to us from Commonwealth assets. And yes, they're watching everything.

I saw one screenshot from the Lee Police Department, where a resident in the community talked about the threat of looters coming to the outlet malls in Lee, information that he says was passed to him by a Pittsfield police officer. Can you speak to that statement?

We’ve not been able to corroborate that statement. We have no information that that came from a Pittsfield police officer.

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