Pittsfield Police Chief Explains His Opposition To State Reform Efforts
As three police reform bills make their way through the Massachusetts legislature, state law enforcement officials have voiced their dissatisfaction with the process. On Tuesday, chiefs from around the commonwealth gathered in Framingham to decry efforts to instate more oversight over police and dial back their legal protections. WAMC spoke with Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn about his opposition to the current reform efforts, and his thoughts on the idea that law enforcement is under attack in America.
WYNN: I think that the consensus is that some type of well thought out police reform is both necessary and timely, but as a Massachusetts Chief of Police, I think that the current effort in the legislature has been rushed and has not adequately taken into account a law enforcement perspective.
WAMC: What do you think is being left out from law enforcement in these reform efforts?
Well, in the Senate bill, we weren't really consulted in any degree at all. And in the House bill, we, the Chiefs Association and other organizations, forwarded language that wasn't included that has resulted in over 200 amendments being filed that are being debated now. So a lot of work done from professional law enforcement officers and executives that wasn't really taken into consideration of the language of the bills that were voted upon.
Specifically the Massachusetts Coalition of Police has pushed back against some slight modifications to qualified immunity, and the Senate bill does not call for a full revocation of qualified immunity. But the Coalition of Police has described it as, "deeply unfair and potentially dangerous". Is that a viewpoint that you also share?
I'm not familiar with the Coalition of Police's actual statement. I'm not a member, so I'm kind of catching up on this. My biggest concern with the debate over qualified immunity is the lack of understanding from the public and some elements of the legislature as far as what qualified immunity actually is. It appears that there's a lack of understanding of the difference between qualified immunity and absolute immunity. And I'm hesitant to support changing legal standing on the basis of people who don't, can't describe the legal standing.
Well, I've spoken with State Senator Adam Hinds about this particular issue because during the debate over that particular clause, they was a lot of back and forth about qualified immunity, and essentially the Senate bill would simply allow that civil suit can be brought against police officers, which heretofore has not been possible in the Commonwealth. Is that something you have a problem with?
That's not my understanding of the senate language. So, you know, I have no problem with lawsuits being brought in cases where the law is clearly established. But qualified immunity applies to situations where the law is not clearly established.
Well, it sounds like these efforts would clearly establish qualified immunity as to exactly how far that admittedly nebulous legal protection would extend. So isn't that a step forward towards establishing an understanding?
It's not the law of qualified immunity. It's when qualified immunity is allowed to be applied. If the law- If the right in question is not clearly established, qualified immunity should apply. If the law is not clearly- Or is clearly established, qualified immunity wouldn't apply already.
We've spoken in the past about frustration that folks in the Pittsfield community have felt about the limits to which your department can carry out misconduct responses against officers due to the restraints of civil service. So, you know, that's something we've talked about. It's something that you've identified as a chief here in this community. It seems like these efforts at reform would give the public a greater sense of exactly what kind of rights they have against officers who perform acts of misconduct, and they might actually welcome repercussions that could quell some of the tensions felt between the community and law enforcement. Do you think there's any truth to that idea?
I think that if the reform laws or the reformed bills or the reform laws, address some of the shortcomings of civil service, then yes, that would be progress, but without passing these reforms bills, without looking at civil service is going to leave us in the same frustrated position that we're in.
In your mind, because in the past, you've talked about committing to change, and certainly your interactions with the Black Lives Matter movement here in Pittsfield, you've talked about the need for change and wanting to be a partner in that change. If this kind of reform, isn't that kind of change, what is the change that you envision that that matches up with that commitment to change that you've expressed?
We- There's, there's no- I'm not aware of any law enforcement officers who are opposed to police reform. But we think that reform needs to be well thought out, and, and well considered. And we think that police officers and police executives need to have a seat at the table, both in describing how that reform moves forward, and what it looks like when it's acted out, or when it's enacted. And that has not been the process as we've seen it in this case.
So where would step one be towards that process that you would embrace?
I think that we need to take a look at all the language from the Senate and the House and the governor's bills, and convene a task force or a working group and come out with the best pieces of all of them and move forward with some type of consensus bill.
Well, outside of the existing bills, if there was a particular topic or subject that you think reform could start with what would an example of that be?
I think the biggest important language that's consistent from the three bills and the efforts put forward through Massachusetts police officers is the need for some type of commonwealth-wide Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST, and the certification process. Those are both things that the chiefs associations have been pursuing for a number of years. And, you know, I think that most Massachusetts law enforcement agrees that there's some need to implement both of those. Now, what the composition of the post would look like and what the certification process would look like, that needs some discussion.
Of the bills currently in the legislature, the governor's bill, the House bill, the Senate bill, are there any of them, or parts of any of them that you think are good and worth holding on to as this process moves forward?
Well, I fully support the establishment of a POST. I fully support the certification and decertification process as long as it includes adequate due process and appeal rights. I'm interested in in looking at a lot of the accountability reform, but again, that's going to depend on some changes to civil service. I think there's a lot more points of agreement than there are points of disagreement.
On Tuesday, there was a gathering of Massachusetts Police Chiefs in Framingham. Did you attend that gathering?
I was not able to attend. No.
I'm interested- There were some comments made there that I want to run by you. Namely, Hampden Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth, who's the president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, made a number of comments, including that "law enforcement is under attack by a liberal element". Are those views that you share with Chief Farnsworth?
I've known Chief Farnsworth for a long time. I have a lot of respect for him. Um, you know, he speaks for our association. So I don't know that I necessarily agree that we're 'under attack from a liberal element.' We are definitely under attack. You know, what the source of that is? I don't want to speculate.
How does that attack manifest itself in the way law enforcement operates today?
I think that- How does it manifest itself in how we operate?
Well, I'm saying if you're if you're saying that there is indeed an attack of some sort happening, how would you characterize that?
I think the law enforcement is being held up by many segments of society as representative of some long-seated and deep-felt ills against the government as a whole. And because we are the 24/7 presence and we are often the first on the scene, we're seen as being representative and responsible for all of the things that people have disagreement or complaint with. And a lot of what is being placed at the feet of law enforcement is not actually within our area of responsibility or our ability to change.