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Pittsfield Police Chief Questioned On Reform Bill, Spending, Screening Recruits For Extreme Views

A man stands in front of a podium.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts police chief discussed police reform, his department’s spending and how it screens recruits for involvement in extremist movements this week.

During the Police Advisory and Review Board meeting Tuesday, Chief Michael Wynn said the landmark police reform bill signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker at the end of 2020 wouldn’t have a major impact on the Pittsfield Police.

“There was the couple things that had to be implemented immediately, and they were basically the changes in the use of force policies and reporting which we were already working on to begin with, the prohibition on the chokeholds and neck restraints which as you know, we’ve been discussing for a good part of the year and we’re just waiting to see what the actual language is going to look like, and the production of documents concerning previous acts of misconduct, which is ongoing anyway,” said Wynn.

He told the board that the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association was unhappy with the legislation, but that they could live with it.

“Personally, I think that a lot of what was thrown at the wall earlier this year, was thrown at the wall with no mind to what Massachusetts law enforcement was already doing and had already done,” said Wynn. “And I think a lot of stuff that we dug our heels in on because we felt that we were being wrongfully lumped in with agencies from elsewhere in the country still managed to make it through. So that's a little bit frustrating. But you know, I had one police chief on a thread I was on, say, if we had suggested at the outset that this be termed ‘police improvement’ instead of ‘police reform,’ we probably would have gotten a lot less pushback from our own personnel and our own numbers. So you know, there's a lot of good in there. Like I said, we've been, we've been hammering the drum for certification for years, but there's definitely some stuff in there that we got splashed with because of stuff that was happening elsewhere in the country.”

The chief responded to a request from a citizen’s group called Invest In Pittsfield about the department providing a disclosure of its inventory. The request came after city councilor Helen Moon brought up the department’s inability to provide documentation of its equipment spending at the last city council meeting – a topic she also probed during last year’s budget hearings.

“During a portion of last year's budget hearing, a question came up events about prior year’s expenditures, and it came up during the hearing with no warning or no notice,” said Wynn. “And so I didn't have a full prior year expenditure accounting with me. I didn't have access to it. So when they asked the question about what new equipment is spent on, I gave a laundry list of generic answers. That prompted what came in the form of a public records request for our complete inventory. Because of the record systems we use for different pieces of equipment, that record at the time did not in fact exist. So if you send me a public records request for something that doesn't exist, I can't produce it under that.”

In light of the involvement of law enforcement officials in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing extremists, Wynn also responded to questions about how his department screens its recruits.

“Our background investigations are comprehensive - but we have to be very delicate and careful about where we go, especially with people's social media profiles or some of their previous associations,” said the chief. “You know, there's a fine line between somebody expressing a belief that we find questionable, we disagree with, and somebody who's a white supremacist or is acting as an extremist. And the difficulty, particularly in the civil service department is, we can identify that. But the creation of the background check in and of itself is not the end. That has to be used to justify a bypass. And if civil service doesn't agree with our conclusion, they can then come back and make us restore that offer. So it's another one of the issues with civil service.”

WAMC intern Jeongyoon Han contributed to this story.

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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