Municipal leaders in the Berkshires are responding to criticisms made by former District Attorney David Capeless in an interview with WAMC last week.
Capeless, commenting on the election to fill the seat he retired from in March, ascribed rising crime rates in the county’s largest cities to their leaders in city hall.
“We got involved in doing it because other people weren’t doing it, and they weren’t holding up to their responsibility,” Capeless told WAMC.
He cited Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports that indicate an uptick in violent crime over the past several years.
“Both Pittsfield and North Adams have woefully understaffed police departments for communities of their populations," said Capeless. "That’s part of it. Those communities — North Adams, unfortunately, has such a poor tax base that it would be very difficult for them to try to ever achieve that. Pittsfield has repeatedly denied the request to expand it to where it absolutely should be, and that’s something that they should be doing about. If your communities aren’t responding, what is a DA to do?”
“I was quite shocked and surprised at his claims, and I found the DA’s assertions as baseless," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.
She tells WAMC that during the time in which her tenure overlapped with Capeless’ —January 2016 to March 2018 — her interactions with his office only came when her office reached out to his, and says Capeless was well aware of her efforts to combat crime in the county’s largest community.
“What disappoints me about David’s remarks is that this mayor and this city council put more money into our police budget, and we have hired more police officers,” the mayor told WAMC.
Tyer is supporting Democratic primary winner Andrea Harrington in her race against longtime Capeless deputy Paul Caccaviello, who is running a write-in campaign.
Reached for comment, the Pittsfield Police Department backed Tyer up, saying in a statement that its “position for the past 10 years has been that based on population, call volume and stats is that we should be staffed at 110-120. Our current authorized strength of 99 is actually an increase by the current administration to move us in that direction. Our previous authorized strength was 89 and we were operating in the high 70s.”
The North Adams Police Department did not respond to a request for comment in time for broadcast, but Police Director Michael Cozzaglio identified comparatively low pay as a detriment to hiring new officers in a conversation with WAMC in September.
“Would I like to see the pay schedules increase and at least be somewhere on par with our brother departments in other parts of the state? Yes, I would like to see that,” said the police director.
Tyer also cited the DA office’s involvement with the city’s implementation of ShotSpotter, a surveillance system that detects the source of gunfire using acoustics, to show that Capeless was aware of city efforts to fight crime.
“I understand that this has taken on some political undertones, or some very blatant and obvious political positioning," said Tyer. "I continue and I am committed to doing the work, and that is why I am looking forward to a district attorney who is going to work with us — with mayors and city councils and school committees and community activists.”
“The current Uniform Crime Data covers the year 2017 — unlike Mr. Capeless, I was not in office at the time," said North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. "However, unlike Mr. Capeless, I won’t shirk from accountability for the data.”
In North Adams, Mayor Tom Bernard — who has not endorsed either candidate for DA — took Capeless to task for his use of the statistics in question, citing the FBI’s own disclaimer that the information in the reports offers a “simplistic and/or incomplete” snapshot of communities at best.
“It doesn’t help when the chief law enforcement officer intentionally misconstrues the data to deny his own accountability," said Bernard, "and Mr. Capeless also knows that when we’re reporting this data, the majority of communities in Berkshire County — all of which have smaller populations than North Adams and Pittsfield — report no data at all, and that’s true for 20 percent of the state. The difference being, North Adams reports every incident, every call, so in a sense we’re punished for transparency.”
Both mayors underscored their belief that the data, and the manner in which Capeless presented it, obfuscates their holistic efforts to combat crime through educational programming, community investment, and better training for law enforcement.
“We have done park improvements in the neighborhoods that have experienced some of these incidents of crime and violence," said Tyer. "We have a brand new high school. We are offering free breakfast and lunch to kids in all of our schools so they’re ready to learn. We have implemented to the best of our ability responses to blighted conditions which we know contributes to crime in neighborhoods.”
Bernard said that while Capeless acknowledged the role of “social and economic factors as part of the context of violent crime,” his analysis fell short.
“The problem is his argument is reductive and uninformed when it comes to what is happening in education, health care, and in the local economy," Bernard told WAMC. "It doesn’t speak to the role of the court system either, and how they treat offenders — where they sentence, where they release, where they put people out on bail who then go to reoffend.”
Like Tyer, he accused Capeless of using his comments to weigh into a political campaign as a partisan.
“When he gives an interview like the one he gave last week which is explicitly politicizing and using data he understands to politicize the race," said Bernard, "then he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this particular argument.”