Brian Sullivan: Police station in arrested development
I thought something terrible had happened. It seemed there were flashing blue lights everywhere this past Friday evening at Berkshire Crossing. Perhaps the pre-holiday crush of vehicles resulted in a major accident. But that wasn't the case at all. In fact, it was good news.
Members of the Pittsfield Police Department were conducting a fundraiser for area children involved with the Special Olympics. The collections, I was told, were to help pay for upcoming travel expenses. So, nothing serious.
When I first realized that the police were accepting cash donations into pails, it occurred to me that maybe this was instead a fundraiser by our public servants to raise money and awareness for their obvious need for a new police station. You know -- brick by brick and dollar by dollar we can build this thing. And while that wasn't the case, you couldn't have blamed them if it was.
The city, for sure, has not shone well under the light of this category in its 250-plus years of history. Police Chief Michael J. Wynn said in an Eagle story last week that there was a need for a new station. Wynn seldom uses the media card, so when he does go public it's wise to listen. He doesn't talk to hear himself, he talks when he has something important to say.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi took it a step further and said that conditions there had lowered the "morale" of the force at the brick two-story without-personality structure on School Street across from City Hall. It was built during the late 1930s with federal money at the cost of $200,000 and was first occupied during the early weeks of 1940. My guess is that it could use a little more than just another coat of paint.
Few things happen quickly around here. But to get this project simply to a starting point and to move it forward in small increments would be a wonderful holiday gift in Chief Wynn's stocking. Brick by brick and dollar by dollar? Maybe that's what it will take. But don't you think this idea has waited in line long enough? I do.
The late 1930s were an interesting time for Pittsfield and the country in general. Eight million more people were working in 1937 then had been employed nationally in 1933. But more than 10 million remained unemployed. The overall population had exploded, and the unemployment numbers locally mirrored the national scene.
To that end, Pittsfield took advantage of federal programs such as the WPA and PWA to hire local workers and complete city projects that included a new $300,000 sewer bed, three bridges funded for $90,000 and the completion of the Sand Wash Brook Dam and Reservoir for $300,000. The former state police barracks on outer Dalton Avenue was built for $50,000. It was this federal aid that resulted in the building of the new police station that replaced the former "lockup" that had been situated on part on the same property since 1879.
The town had approved $2,800 during 1879 for that project and did so without great enthusiasm. In its infant days, the facility served as a holding area for unruly and misbehaving types and for transients passing through who needed a place to stay.
Oddly, the first need in town for any type of "lockup" came during the Civil War. What we know now as Deming Field served as a recruitment encampment in Berkshire County. Those young men who volunteered and those who were later drafted would sometimes drift into the downtown area of Pittsfield during their free time, and it became very apparent that idle hands and minds were the right combination for occasional trouble. Boys, I guess, would be boys even during those times.
The police force, then made up of volunteer "constables," had their volunteering hands full.
Any discussion of history involving the Pittsfield Police Department is a good time to bring up and honor the name of Capt. Michael Leonard. I've called his name before and will continue to do so when appropriate.
Leonard, a seasoned veteran, was helping to clear the train tracks at the former Union Station on the evening of May 31, 1898. Spectators, some "helplessly bewildered" about where to stand, were there to pay tribute to a passing train carrying soldiers bound for action in the Spanish-American War.
Leonard, while trying to help others, was struck by the locomotive and died the next day. Bound by duty, police then and now seek neither attention nor adulation. But Leonard's death shook the town and the perception of the department and those who served within it changed in Pittsfield with his passing.
Citizens, quite frankly, began to examine both law and order a little closer. They began to understand.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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