PITTSFIELD -- The city's Police Advisory Committee will recommend the hiring of four new officers and a sergeant to staff a unit dedicated to patrolling the downtown business district.
After meeting Monday with members of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., the committee unanimously agreed to send that request to Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi before early fiscal 2015 department budgets take shape later this month,
Robert A. Proskin, president of the downtown business group, and several other merchants asked the advisory group to lobby for expansion of police foot patrols and other safety improvements. Those patrols began last year but primarily focus on the daytime hours and are funded through overtime for two officers per shift.
A longtime business owner in the district, Proskin said that back in the 1990s, comparatively little was happening in the downtown, but the business revival fueled by theaters and other cultural venues, streetscape improvements and special events has changed that image.
"These are good problems to have," he said, adding that the limited foot patrols have had a significant effect -- especially on the perceptions of visitors and downtown workers -- but business owners are hoping they can be expanded.
Nighttime patrols are seen as a key goal, they said, both to provide a visible presence to deter crime and vandalism, and to help control traffic during and after large events like plays or special downtown gatherings.
About 6,000 people now work downtown, he said, and more visitors are seeing the area as a destination. Proskin said he understands that more officers "will take funding," but added that the downtown has grown into a key business and cultural center with an image worth protecting.
Downtown Pittsfield Inc. members also asked that police attention be directed at speeding and crosswalk areas and that the city consider more lighting. Proskin asked that a security video system be considered as well.
Police Chief Michael J. Wynn said the current downtown patrols are funded through department overtime and are on track to cost the city $108,000 over a year. He said that current PPD staffing levels do not allow dedicating officers to the downtown. "To do it right," he said, "you would need four [additional] patrol officers and a sergeant."
That would allow a unit to patrol the downtown on a regular basis and ensure good communication between merchants, shoppers and the department on safety issues.
The committee then decided unanimously to recommend that the city fund five new PPD officers in the next budget.
In addition, the committee is studying the department's long-term staffing needs. Wynn said staffing levels in comparable communities in the region and nationally indicate Pittsfield should have 100 to 120 officers, compared to the current 90.
Because of the funding required, he said, "this is really a political issue, not an operational one."
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