The police chief of Great Barrington, Massachusetts sat down with WAMC for a long talk about the department and contemporary law enforcement.
William Walsh has led the Great Barrington Police Department for 36 years. In that time, he’s seen a lot of societal changes that affect the nature of his job. He says one of the most surprising for him has been about the legalization – and now, the full on commercialization – of marijuana.
“Obviously, it is a big cultural change and shift," he told WAMC. "You know, I never thought I’d see the day. So, it’s a big deal in terms of where society’s thoughts have changed on this.”
He says his 15 full time officer department – which worked with Berkshire County’s first legal adult recreational pot store on its opening in early 2019 – is taking the changes in stride.
“People voted it," shrugged Walsh. "Our job is to work with what people vote and request and tell us to do, so we’re going to play our role – and the rest of it goes with what the public wants, I guess.”
Other changing tides in public attitudes are less of a surprise to Walsh. Asked about the staying power of efforts to reform the criminal justice system both in Massachusetts and nationwide, he says it isn’t a flash in the pan.
“I think it’s definitely a big change in how they look at us," said Walsh. "I don’t see us going backwards at all. Just over the past couple of years, our country, our society, however you want to put it – law enforcement wise, some things, instances have happened. From Ferguson – that was a big deal. And other major instances across the year involving law enforcement and how it was handled, and that sort of thing.”
Walsh says that the report issued in 2015 by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing – organized in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson protests – had a big impact on him.
“In fact I attended a meeting at the White House two years ago on that report when it first came out with a bunch of other chiefs from Berkshire County, and there’s a lot of good things and good material in there to make you think and again, make you look at how you do business,” said Walsh.
He says there’s a standing committee in the department that continues to draw on the presidential task force’s recommendations.
“So between that and accreditation, we’ve got our hands full in terms of review of the department, and I think oversight of the department, and transparency, what we do," said the chief. "It’s pretty much out there. Our website has a lot of things on there that refer to – we have a portal on our website that refers to the presidential task force and initiatives we’re doing to meet some of those recommendations.”
In terms of oversight, Walsh says that beyond the immediate hierarchy of the town’s selectboard and manager, he has a very real check on his department.
“I’ve got 7,000 some citizens and taxpayers, which is some sort of external review, I think," said Walsh. "If they don’t give me my budget in May, we’re out of business.”
He has a list in mind for what he’ll be asking from those taxpayers in 2019.
“Oh right now our biggest need and expense is portable radios," said the chief. "Those are about 10, 11, 12-years-old and they need to be replaced. We’ve got a couple other infrastructure problems with our 911 center, as far as cabling issues and things that I’d like to get set.”
He estimated the cost of the radios alone as being around $7,000 a pop.
In 2017, Great Barrington voters passed a Safe and Inclusive Community resolution at its annual town meeting. It’s the only community in the Berkshires with a so-called ‘trust policy’ that calls for all community residents to be treated equally by police – including along immigration status lines. Specifically, the resolution says Great Barrington police will not "participate in enforcement of federal immigration law or aid in the detention, transfer or deportation of residents for civil immigration purposes." Walsh said that while he and his department ultimately endorsed the resolution after “thinking it through,” Walsh told WAMC that he found its restrictions around working with ICE – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to be the hardest to swallow.
“They are another law enforcement agency," said Walsh. "I mean, you don’t want us not talking to the FBI or the Secret Service or Homeland Security about terror – you know. Why shouldn’t we be talking about all our federal partners?”
That restriction – and Walsh’s uncertainty around it – was recently tested when his department faced criticism for its involvement with an ICE arrest in Great Barrington. After an Albanian immigrant working in Great Barrington was taken into custody by the federal agency, an officer from the Great Barrington Police Department brought him medicine from his apartment. The move prompted at least one citizen to complain at the town’s January 14th selectboard meeting about possible violation of the resolution.