A string of shootings last month in Pittsfield has again raised concerns about crime in the city, and in particular to the reasons some young people make bad decisions. Police Chief Michael Wynn talked with Eagle correspondent Christopher Marcisz about the root of the problem, and about his own journey from Pittsfield to Williams College.
Q: After the shootings last month, is there anything you'd want people to know that hasn't come through?
A: I don't know if it didn't come through, but I can't emphasize enough that this is a public safety issue, but also a reflection of community conditions. This most recent series of incidents didn't come about overnight and we're not going to solve it overnight, and it's certainly not something the police can solve alone. In talking with the mayor, the thing that concerns me is that there are young people in this community who don't have other coping mechanisms, don't understand consequences, and are making bad decisions.
Somebody else in this community loves those people, and those people know that the at-risk youth have an idea, have a plan, and maybe have access to a gun. It's those people — those that love these at-risk youths — who need to tell us before something bad happens. We want to take the guns off the street, but we want to take them off before they're used.
Q: There's been talk about the role of gangs in the recent problems. What can be done about that?
A: Gang intervention and prevention, again, are community issues. We need to impact these youth before they decide to engage in gang-related activities, when they're feeling disenfranchised, or feel they don't have other opportunities, that's when you need to connect with them. The department can do that to some extent, but not to sound cliche, it takes a village. Mentorship, education, employment, all that matters. If a young person decides they're going down that path, it's much harder to get them out than keep them out.
Q: Tell us about the program you work with at Williams College during Winter Study.
A: It's a program is called Learning Intervention for Troubled Teens. What happens is young offenders in the juvenile court system for criminal charges or child assistance petitions are basically sentenced to Williams for January, where they are partnered with a Williams student on a research project the juvenile chooses. They spend a few afternoons a week at the college, working on their project, and some social interaction. They go bowling, go to Tunnel City, tour the campus. At the end of the month they have to present their research project to faculty, staff, and the court, and representatives from the DA's office and judges.
Q: You're from Pittsfield, and went to Taconic High. How aware of Williams were you growing up?
A: I was aware it was there. I had classmates who aspired to Williams, but it certainly wasn't where I saw myself. I had aspirations to a military career. My first college was the Naval Academy, focused on math and science. Then in my first year I realized I was much happier in the humanities, and it was at that point I considered Williams.
Q: Was it a culture shock?
A: I don't know that it was a culture shock. There's a couple of different things. If you go to an institution like Williams, you very quickly get used to the notion that no matter what your previous experiences are, you are average. It's incredibly humbling. And as a local, your friends and classmates from all over the country and the world look at you for different sorts of support, so it wasn't uncommon if I had to come home or do laundry I'd have a list of things to pick up. [For example] there was no Ben & Jerry's in North County at that time, so I'd bring it back to campus. The other thing I realized is that people that come to the Berkshires from elsewhere assume we all partake in all our local cultural activities. My classmates assumed I'd been to The Clark a lot, and Jacob's Pillow. It embarrassed me to tell them I'd been to the Clark once on a field trip. It takes that kind of perspective to make you realize we are blessed to be in the Berkshires, surrounded by all these opportunities. We need to take advantage of that.
Q: Last month you won the inaugural "Purple With Purpose" award from the regional alumni association.
A: That was a bit of a shock. It's part of Williams' "Teach it Forward" campaign, associated with our alumni fundraising, and the idea that Williams grads should connect with their communities. Each regional association was asked to recognize one local alum. It was humbling to be recognized by fellow Ephs.
Q: When I think about stereotypes of Williams alumni, I think Wall Street, museum directors ...
A: ... A lot of bankers, doctors, lawyers.
Q: But not necessarily law enforcement ...
A: Very few. I've met a couple of federal agents, and I've had other alums talk to me about joining state and local law enforcement. There's some people who work peripherally in law enforcement, like our department's intelligence analyst. But it's fairly rare.