PITTSFIELD -- Ten community leaders started the conversation about all facets of violence in the Berkshires on Thursday night, but it was more than 70 county residents who kept it going.
The event, Reducing Violence in Berkshire County, addressed myriad topics relating to violence -- from animal abuse, to bullying in the school hallways and the court process -- and later led to small-group discussions at Berkshire Community College.
It was sponsored by BCC's Global Issues Resource Organization and Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice, a group that holds weekly peace demonstrations in Park Square in downtown Pittsfield.
"There are causes of violence, and ways to try to deal with preventing it," said Don Lathrop, a professor emeritus at the college and a member of the citizens group. Many of the signs that group members use at their demonstrations were hanging throughout the BCC cafeteria, where the forum was held.
Marion Lathrop, another member of group, gave 10 representatives from local organizations 5 minutes each to speak about their topics on violence before breaking into groups. Representatives came from the Pittsfield Police Department, the Brien Center, Human/Animal Violence Education Network, the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Alternatives to Violence Project, Help Increase the Peace Population and the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
"I'm blown away by all the resources we have up here," Marion Lathrop said.
In his presentation, District Attorney David Capeless showed statistics that indicate a marked increase in domestic violence in the county over the past 11 years, but a decline in other crimes -- a result he attributed to people spending less time out and about, and an increase in people reporting crimes.
"It's not just somebody else's problem," Capeless said before his presentation. "It's a community problem. It's a social problem."
After the panel and topics for the night were introduced, most of the attendees broke off into groups for each of the topics relating to violence -- youth, animal abuse, guns, domestic violence, street violence, prevention and alternatives, mental health and drugs, due process and prison programs. The groups exchanged ideas, experiences and insight into their respective topics.
Police Chief Michael Wynn's discussion on street violence, and the Brien Center's discussion on mental health and drugs, were the two most popular groups attended, each seeing about a half-dozen attendees.
The topic of using medication to treat mental illnesses led to a "spirited discussion," said Brien Center CEO Chris Macbeth.
"Amongst the group, there were varying perspectives," she said. "I think we ultimately agreed that in some instances it can certainly help. In other instances, it may be used short-term as part of a larger treatment."
Chief Wynn's group talked about gangs, drugs and violence in Pittsfield, specifically on North Street.
"The whole perception is that sometimes people think it's not a safe community, but it is a safe community," said Ed Burniske, one of the participants in Wynn's group. "Pittsfield is doing a great job."
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