Tuesday morning, Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington announced the formation of a new domestic and sexual violence task force to address what she describes as a growing public health crisis in the community. The task force was detailed during a press conference at the Pittsfield office of the Elizabeth Freeman Center.
“Since 1974, Elizabeth Freeman Center has been the frontline and major safety net in Berkshire County for all persons experiencing domestic, dating, and sexual violence,” said the center’s executive director, Janis Broderick. She says it served almost 1,800 survivors from across the county in 2018.
“Last year, Berkshire County’s rates of protection order filings by population were 36 percent higher than the state average," said Broderick. "The Pittsfield Police Department alone refers almost 800 cases to us every year. In 2017, four Berkshire communities – Stockbridge, Adams, Pittsfield, and North Adams – ranked first, third, fifth, and sixth in highest rates of reported rape by population in Massachusetts. And six Berkshire women were murdered by their husbands or ex-boyfriends in the past four years.”
“April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month," said Harrington. "And no better time to announce the formation of the new Berkshire Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force and an 18-person steering committee made up of community leaders from across Berkshire County.”
Harrington is a member of the committee, which includes State Senator Adam Hinds, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard – all Democrats.
“The taskforce and the steering committee will enact a strategic plan to prevent domestic and sexual violence across our community and engage our community in action across multiple disciplines,” she said.
The DA – who was outspoken about the issue on the campaign trail in 2018 – says new resources will be brought to bear in the battle against domestic and sexual violence.
“The taskforce will implement the high risk initiative model in Berkshire County by training people throughout the community the signs that someone is at risk of being a victim or an abuser to prevent violence before it occurs,” said Harrington.
She described the approach to confronting the crisis as trauma informed, and said that sex trafficking would also be targeted by the initiative through new trainings for local law enforcement.
“My team in the DA’s office is committed to prosecuting abusers, and is working to create a culture where victims are believed,” she said.
The new push will also see Harrington’s office track sexual assault cases beginning when complaints are filed, as opposed to when charges are brought, and will offer advocates and prosecutors to police and medical providers who are assisting victims.
“I have formed an internal team that is working to identify unindicted sexual assaults from the past with the intention of prosecuting perpetrators, fulfilling a promise made during my campaign,” said the DA.
Harrington said the move is in response to community demand, and that a review of dismissed or unprosecuted sexual assault cases in the Berkshire County DA’s office yielded a list of more than 200.
“We began by making an inquiry with the State Police Crime Lab as to what sexual assault rape kits they have there," said Harrington. "But then it’s going to be a process of taking that list and going to all of our local police departments and seeing what they have in their files.”
Harrington said that new charges could emerge from the investigations. The statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes is 15 years in Massachusetts.
The DA also said she would be working with the offices of Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito as part of the initiative.
“Next month, 11 members of my staff will attend training in Pittsfield to be certified as application assistants for the Address Confidentiality Program," said Harrington. "This program is a means by which survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, or stalking may use a confidential address in order to stay safe from perpetrators.”
“We know what we don’t know in terms of domestic violence. We know that it is a serious, it is an epidemic issue in North Adams and across Berkshire County," said North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. His city was home to the first alleged domestic violence-related death in Massachusetts in 2018. He told WAMC that confronting sexual assault and domestic violence is a priority for him as well as for Jason Wood, the city’s new police chief. Bernard said the new resources the DA is dedicating to the issue will be a boon.
“It is going to expand our ability to make progress and to support victims in North Adams and across the county," he said.
“Well, quite frankly, I think this issue has always been important but hasn’t had the right combination of intentional effort to address this important issue," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – who supported Harrington’s bid for office. She spoke with WAMC Wednesday.
“While I think this is something that should have happened five years ago, ten years ago, it certainly has value in that it is now taking center stage in what the district attorney’s planning to do in her time as an elected representative and the chief law enforcement officer of our community,” said the mayor.
Helen Moon – the city councilor for Pittsfield’s Ward 2 and the Director of Special Projects in the DA’s office – also sits on the steering committee. She says the initiative emerged from informal conversations early in 2019.
“DA Harrington and I sat down with Janis Broderick and Meg Bossong from Williams College and really kind of tried to assess what are the needs in Berkshire County, and from that, started to invite some people who could really contribute to that conversation," Moon told WAMC. "And we’ve been spending the last couple of months laying the ground work, surveying the resources that are currently available in Berkshire County, and trying to see where the gaps are that we need to fill in.”
Lieutenant Thomas Dawley, of the Pittsfield Police, says the department is taking the initiative very seriously.
“We’re going to continue to work hard, we’re going to continue to do what we do best – investigate these domestic violence incidents as well as sexual assault incidents," said the lieutenant. "And we’re going to combine our efforts with the DA’s office and other outlets to combat this.”