Letter: Stockbridge shouldn't weaken police chief position

Stockbridge shouldn't weaken police chief

To the editor:

Having heard that a petition has been filed to place an article on the annual town meeting warrant to remove the police chief's position from its status under Mass. General Laws Chapter 41, Section 97A, the so called strong chief statute, I wanted to make my views known.

The 1948 addition of GL c.41, s.97A, the so called strong chief statute, simply moved responsibility for what was a day-to-day management of the police department from the Selectmen to the police chief: "The chief of police in any such town shall from time to time make suitable regulations governing the police department, and the officers thereof, subject to the approval of the Selectmen; provided that such regulations shall become effective without such approval upon the failure of the selectmen to take action thereon within thirty days after they have been submitted to them by the chief of police."

Clearly the intent of the statute was to remove "politics" and allow a more professional police chief to do his or her job while the board of selectmen would maintain its role as policy maker insuring the police department was kept on the straight and narrow.

So you might then ask why keep the position of chief under 97A. Possibly the biggest reason is that anyone worth their salt seeking employment with the town who found out that 97A was not in place would run the other way knowing it to be a town that wants to get its fingers into the day-to-day operation of the department, a surefire formula for disaster. Imagine living in a town where the Selectmen could determine the staffing of shifts, training requirement, compliance with laws governing the operation of a professional department, etc. Towns, which have not adopted the strong chief model, and there are few remaining, reflect towns in political turmoil.

A 97A strong chief only refers to his or her responsibilities and professionalism and is not about the fear of a chief's independence from accountability. All chiefs are subject to dismissal for cause after a hearing.

I would always shake my head when people would comment on how much power the chief of police has. I never felt I had any power, only a tremendous amount of responsibility. Power to create, and keep on an even keel, a police department that reflects the culture and personality of the town lies within the voters and their representatives, the Selectmen.

I would encourage the town to be more concerned with the individual strengths of their public safety officials including such things as personality, political and diplomatic skills, vision, professional competence and leadership ability.

Rick Wilcox, Stockbridge The writer is the retired Stockbridge chief of police.


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