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Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler offers his own definition of “progressive” in bid for third term

A man stands at a podium in front of a desk with a row of armed law enforcement officers behind him and a woman in a blue suit jacket to his left
Josh Landes
Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler at a 2019 press conference.

Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler is running for a third six-year term. The 62-year-old Democrat went unchallenged in 2016, but this year he’ll be tested in the primary by Southern Berkshire District Chief Probation Officer Alf Barbalunga. Bowler spoke with WAMC about making his case to voters, and the race for Berkshire District Attorney — as he supports challenger Timothy Shugrue over incumbent Andrea Harrington.

BOWLER: I take a look at all the accomplishments we've had over the last 11 and a half, almost 12 years, and the progressive environment that we've produced up here with our inmate population and with our community resources. And in my opinion, we've grown a great deal. We are utilized by a number of non-for-profit agencies within the community, and I still think that there's more that we can offer and more that we can do as society changes. And, with the health system, and mental health, and jobs, and education, and all the things that we provide to our inmate population up here, I feel that we've been very progressive, and we're going to, we want to continue on doing that.

WAMC: So Tom, I'm interested to hear you use the word “progressive” in this context. I know that you have supported candidates running against Andrea Harrington in 2018 and in this year’s cycle – who is, of course, the Berkshire DA who ran under the progressive label – and I've talked to you in the past about some of your discomfort with some aspects of criminal justice reform in the state. Can you sort of speak to that dynamic? What do you mean by progressive?

Progressive means many things. There are some progressive viewpoints that, sure, I don't agree with when it comes to law enforcement. But when you take a look at the programming that we've done with our inmate population up here and the things we've done in the community, that's also being very progressive, changing with the times. The aquaponics program that we have up here at the jail for inmates growing produce and donating it to the communities as well as utilizing it here at the jail. Having Williams College students coming in here to take a class, nine students from Williams College and nine inmates here having a philosophy course for a whole semester, taking a look at the medically assisted treatment programs that we now offer that we didn't in the past. You know, my views have changed on MATs, on medically assisted treatment. I was always under the impression abstinence was the best way to go. But when I talked to families, parents, and grandparents, and siblings of those who are affected by substance use disorder, and they sit there and they told me that if it wasn't for Suboxone or methadone their loved one would be dead by now. Well, that resonates with me. So I know there's a place for it. And it's just, it's trying to find that place within our system where it works. And we are now licensed to administer methadone, which has been a huge accomplishment. And so we work with, not only do we administer the actual medication to the inmate, but they get counseling and education to go along with it, which many of them don't really get out in the street when they go to the clinics. So that's, when I talk about progressive, that's where I'm talking about the progressive, progressive aspect of where we've got.

Now, let me ask you this: You're facing an opponent, Alf Barbaglunga. Any comments on being a challenged for the seat this year?

No, I think it's- You know, look at- This is a way for us to get everything we've accomplished and we've done for the last 11 and half years out to the community, and, look at- People always come to the table with new ideas, and it's good to listen to those. I think the people should have access to that. So we're just going to continue running on our record, running on what we've done for this community and the people up here with the sheriff's office. And, you know, we're going to see how it goes. It's going to be exciting, and it'll be a busy but exciting summer.

Now, you've donated to the campaign of Timothy Shugrue, who's running for DA. Can you walk me through sort of what you see in Mr. Shugrue’s campaign? Are there any parallels between his message and your campaign?

One of the biggest things that I think is- Look at, I'm all for, I do not want to fill my jail up with people with low level crime, okay? But at the same time, we need to hold people accountable, accountable for their actions. And, you know, I've always been an advocate that if you have somebody that has been committing, who has a substance use disorder, and they have been, there's criminal behavior attached to that disorder as well- We're the perfect place and a perfect solution to get people to be held accountable for their actions, and at the same time, give them the resources and the tools they need to overcome their addiction and go back into the community a much better person when they leave than when they come in. So I think Tim shares the same, the same views that I do. Obviously, we're not running joint campaigns. He's running his own campaign, and I'm running my own campaign and there are certain things that Tim agrees upon and some things that I'm sure that I may not agree with Tim. So, you know, we're just going to see how things pan out, and, and we'll go from there.

When I spoke to Tim about his campaign, he talked about the sense of disconnect between the DA and law enforcement in Berkshire County. Can you speak to that? Is that something that that resonates with you?

Yeah. I think one thing we've been used to over the years with previous administrations is there was a huge communication between the district attorney's office and police departments when it came to cases. Now, I'm no longer with a local municipality. We don't have a lot of crimes or criminal documentation that's coming out of the jail- Every so often we do. But I think, from my understanding, is that there's been a disconnect between the, whether it's the DA’s office and the officers themselves, and having input in those particular investigations. I think there's been a disconnect there.

What are the big issues in this campaign? This is one of these offices that I think a lot of people don't even really know is up for election. So what do you think is going to make or break this on the campaign trail?

I think it's community involvement. There's a lot we can do for this incarcerated population. And we've been, as I mentioned before, we've tried to be as progressive as we could over the last 11 and a half, 12 years to reintegrate these individuals back into the community a much better person and using all resources and other agencies. We're dealing with, 90% of this population is- 90% has an addiction. 80% have mental health issues. There's a lot of challenges that we face every single day. And I think it's getting these people, we're shooting- Our mission and our goal is to create a stronger, healthier, and safer community. And the more people that have that opportunity, the more people that leave us and have the opportunity to be successful, we are going to create a stronger, healthier, and safer community. So I think community involvement is going to be great. And the impact we will have with this, with our incarcerated population, with all the challenges that we face every day.

Now, besides the simple fact that you're the incumbent and have a lot of experience in the role, what do you think most sets you apart from Alf Barbalunga to voters?

In my opinion, it is that experience. It’s the experience dealing with this population, this culture, and this environment. And I'm going to just let my record, what we've done the last 11 and a half years speak for itself.

The last couple of years have been defined by so many public conversations about policing and about law enforcement and issues of systemic inequity. How have those conversations changed the work that you do? You know, thinking back to two summers ago, and the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations like that- Has that made an impact on the work you do as Sheriff?

Not really, and I'll tell you a reason why. I have no say who comes to my facility, Josh. Everybody that comes to this facility comes here because they've been sent here either at the request of the district attorney or the courts or another agency. But that doesn't matter to us. It doesn't matter their ethnic background, it doesn't matter the color of their skin, it doesn't matter the crime they've committed. Our job is to reintegrate them back in the community. Every single person that comes through these doors has the same opportunity as everybody else.

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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