Citizens Groups Press Pittsfield On Police Oversight

Jul 11, 2018

The administration of Pittsfield, Massachusetts Mayor Linda Tyer fielded criticism about police oversight at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

The meeting, back in city council chambers after three months in the Pittsfield High School library while city hall’s elevator was being repaired, opened with pointed public comment directed at the mayor’s proposal for a new police advisory committee.

“Unfortunately the mayor’s proposal doesn’t provide even the appearance of accountability, and its symbolic value is further undercut by the bad faith her administration has shown in getting us here," said Igor Greenwald of Civil Liberties Pittsfield, a citizens’ advocacy group.

“The police chief and the city solicitor sat around the table with the mayor, two city councilors, and members of the last failed citizens’ advisory committee back in January," said Greenwald at the meeting. "They claimed that the successful oversight models used for more than a decade in Springfield, Massachusetts and Cambridge, Massachusetts would be illegal here — not inadvisable, but illegal. They’ve since continued to spread this falsehood. You should ask them to justify this magical belief if in fact they hold it. Because when we did, much more politely, they ignored us, and the administration stopped talking to us.”

Greenwald added that Mayor Tyer’s plan relies too heavily on police reports and said it doesn’t have enough muscle to influence the police department.

“Every Pittsfield officer already knows that any unflattering conclusions by this review panel will not affect their career or standing with the department,” he told the council.

Greenwald said that Civil Liberties Pittsfield will present its own proposal at the July 24th city council meeting along with a documentation of alleged police abuses.

“This is a force that’s recently yielded a whole basket of bad apples who until the moment they were fired or charged with a serious crime were presented to the public as fine, well-trained officers,” he said.

He finished his comments with accusations that Police Chief Michael Wynn’s November 2017 civil service appointment by the mayor made him effectively beyond reproach.

“Let’s all hope it won’t take another police killing in this city for the mayor and city council to realize that the fight against the abuses of power begins at home,” said Greenwald. He told WAMC he was referring to the shooting death of Daniel Gillis in September 2017.

Dennis Powell, President of the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, was more forgiving to Tyer, saying that she was sincere in her efforts with the police oversight committee.

“I just think the makeup is entirely incorrect,” he said at the meeting.

Powell underscored Greenwald’s observation that the Pittsfield plan contrasts heavily with other Massachusetts cities’ police oversight commissions.

“Is it 13 members so that we hope we can get enough to attend meetings?" he asked the council. "Springfield’s commission is five members.”

Citing the failure of two previous stabs at establishing such a committee, Powell also noted that other city attempts to convene on community issues have fallen short.

“I don’t even think the Affirmative Action even meets any more," he said. "The Human Rights Commission, I don’t know if they really had any serious cases brought.”

Powell said the Human Rights Commission has failed because the city didn’t give it proper guidelines, and didn’t provide a city attorney to allow it to make informed decisions.

“Right off the bat, the citizens had lost confidence in that committee because they really felt there was no transparency,” he said.

Powell said a police oversight committee would need “teeth” to prove to citizens that the city was taking the issue seriously.

“The police department is a civil service police department, so there is a very extensive process outlined in civil service law with regard to how discipline is handled within the department," Mayor Tyer told WAMC. "It is not the role of citizens to administer discipline.”

While Police Chief Michael Wynn could not be reached for comment on this story and didn’t attend the meeting, Mayor Tyer defended her plan to WAMC.

“What we have attempted to do and what we’re proposing is to create an advisory committee with the intent of getting citizens greater access to the Police Department through the Chief, the ability to have input on police and regulations, the ability to review citizen complaints, and the ability to review internal affairs reports once they are completed, and to give recommendations to the chief as part of that review process,” said Tyer.

The mayor’s proposal was moved by the city council to the Ordinance and Rules committee, which meets August 6th.