Great Barrington, Massachusetts has chosen a new permanent police chief. 53-year-old Paul Storti is a town native. The former sergeant has been Acting Police Chief since December, when Chief William Walsh retired after 40 years. His official start date remains pending as he negotiates a contract with the town. Storti, who’s been with the department since 1995, spoke with WAMC about why community outreach is his top priority, and what he learned from calls to cut public funding for the department at last year’s town meeting.
STORTI: I have started my law enforcement career in 1989. I worked part time for the Town of Egremont. A few years after that, I started working also from the Town of Sheffield on a part-time basis. And then in 1995, I was hired with the Town of Great Barrington as a full-time police officer
WAMC: Stepping into this new role, what do you see as your major priorities for the department?
Just to continue some of the progressive programs. We've started to reach out to the community and try to develop a lot of new relationships, developing better communication, and trust – continue that mission.
Last year, there were a lot of really tough conversations about the role of police in Great Barrington. What were your takeaways from those conversations?
It's pretty complex. I'm not quite prepared to answer that one right now.
As far as policies that your predecessor, William Walsh, has in place that you want to continue, what are some examples of his leadership that you want to continue forward with your tenure?
We started a co-respondent program that was modeled off of the Pittsfield Police Department's program. And we've had great success with that. We've also started the Comfort Dog Program, and we're in the development stages of that. The dog's getting trained with his handler, Officer Kristopher Balestro, so I want to continue that program in advance and advance that. And my goal is to start – to keep promoting – create a community outreach officer to work to reach other areas of the community that we may be missing and to develop relationships so we can create some dialogue and have good constructive conversation. So those are, kind of, some of the directions I want to bring the department.
As far as your own ideas or new initiatives, what do you want to bring out that maybe hasn't been there before in Great Barrington policing?
Just to continue those programs. I've been behind all three of those things I just mentioned, so I really want to take them to the next level, I want to try to identify areas that we're missing, certain dynamics or certain citizens that we're missing, and have a broad approach to make sure that everybody in the community understands what we're doing, and that we're here to work with them and to help them and to give them a voice in the way that we police their community.
I know a lot of police departments in the Berkshires talk about how hard it is to recruit police officers. Are you happy with the current staffing levels of the department?
I'm happy with the current staffing levels. I think, within those staffing levels, I think we can maintain the level of services that we provide. I just want to reallocate and maybe look at different ways that we can utilize the officers to be more functionable.
There was conversation at last year's town meeting about how the town spends money on its police department, including some calls to cut back on public spending on law enforcement. Is that conversation something you're thinking about as budgets come together for fiscal year 2022?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what I what I learned through this process is that, you know, we were doing a lot of the, the programs and the initiatives that were called for, with the defunding of our budget. So what I realized during this process is that our message, and the work that we're doing, is not reaching everybody. So one of my goals and objectives is to really bring everybody in the community to understand exactly what we are doing here at the police department, what programs we have in place, so everybody has a better understanding that we're currently doing a lot of the stuff that was mentioned in that defunding of our budget last year.
When you talk about reaching out to communicate more parts of the community who maybe don't understand the work that you say that you do with the department, where does this conversation start?
Well, they're going to start – I'm working on just getting some, you know – with COVID, it's kind of a little difficult – but what I'm planning is to set up some meetings with anybody who would like to do a meet and greet with me and start the dialogue. I think, as I meet people, they'll have ability to express themselves and through conversation, I think it'll give everybody an opportunity to be heard. And I can hear their concerns, and maybe the direction they would like to see their police department go. I'll be able to address them and, you know, work towards working together to make everybody feel like they have part in the progression of our department.