The Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Advisory and Review Board presented its first annual report this week.
The board is the city’s third attempt at instituting a lasting police advisory committee over the past five years. In its creation, city leaders rejected calls for an oversight board with greater powers, embracing the comparatively limited designation as an advisory body. At Tuesday night’s virtual city council meeting, municipal leaders heard a report on the first year of the new board’s deliberations.
“Some of the challenges are we don’t have a lot of power. And we’re usually involved with things after the fact, rather than during the development of policy or investigations," said chair Ellen Maxon. “Change is hard for institutions, so that’s a challenge any institution’s going to face when suggestions are made.”
Maxon praised Police Chief Michael Wynn for his participation with the board, but her comments recalled previous incarnations of the board, whose members also bemoaned a sense of purposelessness.
“We review investigations after the fact. We hear about policies after they’ve happened," said Maxon. "This last month, I asked if one of our members could sit in while the chief is reviewing the use of force policy, and he was very open to that. So we had a member who’s has gone to those meetings, and I think that would be an important place where we could make a difference a little bit more – if we could be involved in the process.”
Maxon put the board’s struggles in a larger context as the nation wrestles with the question of police reform.
“Boston’s struggling with whether their four-year-old review committee is anything more, have they done any, made any difference, have they done anything more than be window dressing?" shared Maxon. "I’m really glad that Pittsfield wanted to get this, but it is a little frustrating sometimes when everything is after the fact.”
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon questioned Maxon about the report.
“You noted that there is a power imbalance between the civilian experience when they contact law enforcement – is there kind of a plan moving forward?" she asked. "How are you attempting to address some of these concerns that you have as a board?”
Maxon said the board raised the issue while discussing an internal Pittsfield Police Department review, and that it hoped to present the perspective of citizens to law enforcement.
“If you’re confronted with someone who has a gun and the power to arrest you or handcuff you and even the power to question you, that can create a lot of anxiety," said Maxon. "I don’t know if any of you have had the siren go on as you’re going a little too fast and your heart starts pumping and stuff, and that anxiety builds up. That affects how people react, and that’s one of the points we’ve been raising a couple times, is – it’s pretty scary, and the power imbalance makes this very difficult to get that across.”
Moon noted that the report includes a statement from Chief Wynn that the body has advocated on behalf of the police department on issues like facilities and staffing.
“Do you think that that is in line with the role and the duties of the Police Advisory and Review Board?” asked Moon. “I feel like there could be a conflict there if you are advocating on behalf of the police instead of over reviewing the board.”
Maxon said the ordinance behind the board’s mission offered a broad interpretation.
“We took a tour through the police department building and that was the input, and our advice is, there needs to be a new building, okay?” responded Maxon. “So we review things, and then we give advice.”
“Can I just interrupt for one second?” asked Moon. “So are you saying you’re advising the community or advising the police department?”
“We’re advising you guys,” said Maxon.
You can read the Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board report here (it begins on page 52 of the PDF).