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Pittsfield Police Advisory And Review Board Again Reflects On Role, Purpose

An SUV is parked on the street in front of a brick building with "Pittsfield Police" on its doors
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Advisory and Review Board held its monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The Police Advisory and Review Board is the city’s third attempt at creating an external review body for the Pittsfield Police Department. It was born out of controversy, with community critics calling the final incarnation of the board impotent due to a lack of authority – a concern echoed in its first annual report by chair Ellen Maxon last summer.

As the board prepares its second annual report, member Michael Feldberg shared his research on the effectiveness of citizen review boards like Pittsfield’s that are limited to strictly advisory roles.

“The studies found, in short, that the more resources and authority the review boards had, the more the incidence of law officers shootings declined and the more the arrest rates for disorderly conduct declined," he told the board. "In some cases, the rate of decline was 20% or more. By contrast, the rates for both measures- that is of shootings and arrest for disorderly conduct- only resulted in a drop of plus or minus 2% in those cities with advisory boards like ours.”

Members were asked to reflect on Feldberg’s presentation. Their comments recalled the frustration of members of police advisory boards past.

Erin Sullivan said the board needs to review its efforts and do things differently moving forward.

“It doesn't feel like we have a whole lot of input," she said. "But I think that's, that was by design, right. So the statute, the charter, is very, you know, what our role is, is pretty limited. And I think, you know, over this past year especially, where we've seen all of the social and racial unrest, that it feels like, I almost feel like we should be doing more, but I also can see in within our police department, that, you know, from the cases that we've reviewed, that when things happen, they seem to be being addressed in a manner that's, that holds people accountable. That's my assumption.”

“I have sensed that we've had as a group the general feeling of frustration regarding our role. The frustration, confusion. I'm wondering why so many of us have decided not to rejoin for our second term," said Feldberg. “I was wondering why, if this sense of frustration, or that somehow, maybe our, it might have been my expectation, that we would have a more direct role in the process of reviewing. I agree with people that if these are the limits of what we have, then our role should be to be in more direct contact with the community, and be a sounding board for people perhaps who won't go directly to the department, if they want to express themselves.”

Police Chief Michael Wynn was asked what happens to the feedback the board offers every month.

“Generally speaking, the feedback that I get is either directed towards language in the investigative report, or language in my endorsement letter and my conclusion letter," he said. "So that usually gets discussed in a command staff meeting, because the commanders are the ones who are offering those reports and receiving my endorsement letters. It's been fairly rare that you've had direct feedback regarding, you know, the communication to the officers. But you've also commented on communication to the complainants. And so we made little changes to those documents as well.”

The board postponed a vote on sending proposed revisions to city code that would “give us specific language explicitly defining the authority with which the City Council wishes to invest the Police Advisory and Review Board” to the city council.

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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