The headlights are steely eyes that can burn through to your soul. The front grill is an intimidating sneer. They hide the face of an authority figure who doesn't care about the good day you might have been having. It's a police car, and the guy or gal in charge of the vehicle is there for one reason -- to enforce the law.
Let's get right to the chase. Which is I'd rather have my police force chase the bad guys in their vehicles and not on foot. A police car is rather impersonal and the uniforms aren't trained by Welcome Wagon. I don't know where cars go to fraternize, or hang out. But I'm guessing the police car is never invited. That hunk of metal and rubber is the bane of all drivers, whether it be the speed-trap variety lurking in the shadows or the one parked at the Tyler Street car wash that spends its time eyeing inspection and registration stickers.
The whole thing isn't very warm and fuzzy, is it? Police cars have no personality. And those behind the wheel don't get paid to have one either. So, when shop owners on North Street began to petition for the return of policeman walking the beat, I wasn't surprised that Chief Michael J. Wynn greeted the idea with a sense of mild uncertainty.
Wynn probably knows more about his roster and the daily utilization of it than his boss, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi. I mean, he's the chief. But if this idea is about providing creature comforts to North Street shopkeepers, then I've got some breaking news.
Pittsfield ain't Mayberry, at least not anymore. The days of officers swinging their patrol sticks, tapping on windows with smiling hellos, slipping in and out of places to get warm or perhaps snagging a free coffee are g-o-n-e gone.
Tyler Street and the various streets off that main drag want a piece of the action, too. I mean if our local police department is going to start flatfootin' on North Street, then carry those steps down Tyler, which seems to have its dysfunctional moments from time to time. I also hear that Elm Street could use a boost on the foot patrol front.
That's a lot of square acres to cover, especially on foot. I'm sure these guys and gals are physically fit, but the image of one of our officers slipping and sliding on a January snow bank while trying to get to where the hot spot is at the moment doesn't infuse me with a sense of comfort and security.
Walking the beat does measure up as a slick public relations move. Downtown merchants aren't asking for Pittsfield officers to march five abreast on every other block. They are just asking if the police (not their cars) can be a visible presence. If you've ever walked North Street and had a near meltdown because of an oncoming roller-blader or skateboard enthusiast, then you probably want more than a presence.
But it's a new dawn. Police cars are equipped with laptops and other tech advancements that allow them to monitor danger zones without having to be parked at ground zero. Or so I've been told, and I have no reason to doubt it. And response time is critical whenever a crime is in progress. The last time I looked the car was still a faster mode of transportation than racing on foot.
Let me finish by quoting a well-known Pittsfield law figure.
"What good is a patrolman on foot? Today is the motor age with good roads and fast automobiles. Auto thefts and reckless drivers have made law enforcement more difficult."
Those words were not spoken by Pittsfield Chief Wynn last month. They were instead passionately offered by former Pittsfield Police Chief John L. Sullivan in 1924.
Sullivan had petitioned the City Council to allow patrolman who lived on the outskirts of the city to be able to use their own vehicles instead of walking their beats. There were few, if any, police cars at that point in time. The council denied the request, but it wasn't long before the department had five new motorcycle patrolmen.
Sullivan (no relation) remains in the top five on my all-time list of city public figures. He took over as chief in 1915 and served more than 30 years. He pushed for the station that we have now, and it's too bad he's still not around to lead the charge for another much-needed headquarters. But it was the advent of cars and paved roads -- a deadly combination --that Sullivan had to face head-on that made him special.
The explosion in the number of vehicles, to a large degree, compromised the use of the walking patrolman, although North Street continued to have its fair share right up through the 1960s. Whether a return to walking the beat amounts to anything more than a feel-good idea designed to appease our downtown entrepreneurs is for the future to answer.
I get the feeling that Wynn's already thin staff isn't embracing the idea. It may claw at their collective egos that they have to perform such an antiquated task. Mingling or engaging downtown may be OK for Mayberry, but it may not be such a hot idea for Pittsfield. Maybe the force really would be more effective in their cars with all their tech toys.
I understand the current law-and-order landscape. And I understand how it would help to ease the fears of the public if police start walking the walk. I mean, I hate headlight eyes and rigid steel stares. True and sincere eye contact does have its place.
But at the end of the day, it might not be what's best for the city.
May the force be with us, but let's leave them in their vehicles.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com