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Pittsfield City Council Approves Police Budget After Lengthy Debate

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield, Massachusetts City Hall.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council approved the proposed fiscal year 2022 police budget Tuesday night after a long debate about spending on law enforcement.

Community members looking to amend the proposed $11.7 million police department budget, a 3.6% increase over the current fiscal year plan, called in to the virtual hearing.

“I'm specifically asking that you will move to cut $25,000 from line item 55820, which is the ammunition line item," said Kelan O’Brien, who referred to Police Chief Michael Wynn in his comments. “This line item has a 33% increase this year, even though only half of what it was budgeted for was used in fiscal 20 and it has not been used to its full budgeted amount this year either. Chief Wynn previously stated that the $30,000 number comes from a specific guideline from the state on how many rounds must be shot for training. But for the past two years, the full amount has not been needed. I hope that you will move to cut to the line item which is currently more than what the library is able to spend on new books and media materials to a more reasonable amount.”

“Setting aside the schools, the Pittsfield Police Department budget dwarfs every other budget in the city. It is many times that of departments like health, elder and veteran services, community development, cultural affairs and other city departments and offices who have important work connected to safety, health and violence prevention," said Meg Bossong. “We can have prevention programs in our city if we choose to invest our city's tax dollars in them. There are literally hundreds of successful models in cities similarly situated across the country. But we need to take ownership of our future at the municipal level and not always depend on local nonprofits to scrape together money from a dwindling pool of grants and donations. Each year we are asked year after year to grow up turn out our pockets for a police department budget that grows and grows. Enough is enough.”

“One line I'd like to highlight is ShotSpotter. This is a program that is very expensive. It was introduced several years ago as a program that would be covered entirely by grants. And now it's costing taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars as a line item each year," said Peter Wise. “I'd like to advocate for that to be made zero and to cut the program. ShotSpotter has a only a 20% accuracy rate. And I'd like to also highlight that the cost goes beyond the line item that goes out for ShotSpotter. We already have an overtime issue with the department and each time there's a false positive from the ShotSpotter, that creates another call that officers have to go out on and that just overall does increase the amount of time and amount of calls that the department has to handle.”

Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon, as in years past, took up for calls for reduced spending on the department and pushed for cuts despite resistance from her fellow elected officials.

“We spend hours, looking at what we spent on public services, what we spent on the wastewater treatment plants, how we're plowing our streets," said Moon. "We literally spent hours, so much so that we had to put a cap on how much we can debate because we spend so much time micromanaging various departments. And so I don't think that it is unreasonable to debate to some extent to some length, a department that has the capacity to use lethal force.”

Ultimately, the only reductions the council agreed to were $15,000 from contractual allowances and $190,000 from the patrol officer line item – both corrections to the spending plan where the city erroneously over-budgeted for 69 patrol officers as opposed to the actual number of 66.

Wynn acknowledged the mistake after Moon drew attention to it.

“Good eye, because I think there's a mistake in there," said the chief. "As far as I can tell what happened when we were going through our second blush of the of the submission budget, I directed my staff to reduce the headcount. But it doesn't look like the related reduction in the funding was made in the request. So based on my calculations this afternoon, that request is about $190,000 in excess.”

While Ward 5 councilor Patrick Kavey said he wouldn’t support cuts to the police without a plan for the reallocation of funds in place, he took Chief Wynn and his department to task in the waning minutes of the hours-long meeting.

“I've been pretty disappointed," said Kavey. "Disappointed on how our interactions have been handled. And disappointed by the lack of collaboration between your department and other city departments and the council. Specifically, I found the rhetoric from you and one of your captains on how you don't answer or don't take requests from the council to be pretty disrespectful. And although per our charter, I am not able to give direct orders to any member of any city department; I don't intend to. But I do expect when I ask a question or I inquire about additional information on a specific topic from a department that I’m met with a collaborative attitude and respect.”

“I'm sorry that you're disappointed in me, because I have never deliberately ignored a voicemail or an email, and anytime I get an email from you I forward it immediately to the operations personnel that I think can best assist you," responded Wynn. “I'm not going to apologize for the fact that I've tried to run a fairly decentralized organization. And I prefer that communication directly to the lowest possible level in the department, instead of all of it being routed through me. But if I wasn't clear about that, that I apologize, and I'll do a better job.”

The council approved the amended $11.5 million police budget with only Moon in opposition. It also approved the $8.7 million fire department budget unanimously.

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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