Pittsfield mayor, police chief pledge robust response to violence
PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda M. Tyer on Monday promised a major investment in police personnel and equipment as part of a comprehensive response to a rash of shootings and other criminal activity.
The mayor, flanked by Police Chief Michael J. Wynn and a dozen public safety officials and others in City Council chambers, said she'll propose an additional $936,000 in her fiscal 2017 police budget.
Describing a city police force that has been doing a good job while significantly understaffed, Tyer said officials have long heard from Wynn and others that a city of Pittsfield's size normally would have 120 officers, but the officer total now is 82.
"Not one more day will this plea for help in personnel go unanswered," she said.
Despite being shorthanded, she said, the department has made a number of arrests, including the rapid apprehension of a man charged with firing multiple shots Thursday in the Pecks Road-Wahconah Street area.
"There is a great deal of anxiety in our city," Tyer said, referring to a rash of "shots fired" police calls that already this year has reached the number received during all of 2015.
The city must acknowledge "gang and gun violence is real," she said.
But the mayor added, "I want to be very clear: I have had enough. And I will not allow the city of Pittsfield to be overrun by this or any other criminal element. To all those who threaten our city: I am not going to stand down while you terrorize our neighborhoods."
She said the gathered officials and community leaders in the packed council chambers and city residents "will not tolerate your criminal activity ... We are going to make it very uncomfortable for you to engage in criminal behavior."
Tyer said 11 trainees are going through the state police academy, and she proposes sending another dozen others for training in the coming months. But she also noted that, given the lengthy vetting process for officers, the need to meet Civil Service requirements — and given some pending officer retirements or transfers — her proposals "will only keep our staffing levels stable" in the near term.
The officers going through the recruitment and training process are not expected to be available until the fall.
The mayor said officials have also explored hiring officers with experience in other local departments to fill the Pittsfield vacancies, but the lower level of pay offered here has proven an obstacle.
Her long-term goal, she said, is to add to the police budget over the next three budget years.
Asked following the press conference whether she will be adding $936,000 to her proposed city budget for fiscal 2017, Tyer said she'll propose balancing cuts in other budget areas and new spending to address the policing needs.
The mayor will submit her city and school budget plan to the City Council for review on June 1. The next budget year begins on July 1.
What the administration now is pursuing vigorously, she and Wynn said, are collaborative efforts with local police departments, state police and the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office. And Tyer hopes to meet soon with Daniel Bennett, the state secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to learn what additional funding or support the state can provide.
Community organizations and programs, such as the multiyear Shannon Grant-funded Pittsfield Community Connection anti-youth violence program; a similar effort targeting youth in their late teens and 20s, and programs to combat the opioid addiction crisis also are components in the city's response to violence, Tyer said.
The need for involvement by the public "is not just a phrase," she said. "It is a call to action."
"PCC needs more mentors. Will you step up?" she asked.
Wynn and Tyer said the recent arrests of a suspect in a string of robberies over the winter and the quick arrest of a man in the shooting incident on Thursday likewise point to the critical role witnesses and residents phoning in tips to police can play.
In answer to a question about immediate responses by Pittsfield Police, Wynn said the department is restructuring its units in an ongoing process, and he has called for recommendations from his lieutenants on staffing needs.
He is creating or restructuring traffic, anti-crime, youth services, downtown patrol and K-9 units, adding that a goal is to have a full-time anticrime unit working in addition to regular patrols.
The city also participates in a "robust mutual aid" program, involving every community in the county, state police, the sheriff's department and other entities, Wynn said, and the Pittsfield Police Department works the probation and other state departments. But he said officers from other departments can be called only on a case-by-case basis, and do not represent a full-time patrolling option in the city.
The department, he said, is reaching out to the community through Neighborhood Watch meetings and other events and social media and building relationships with residents.
Wynn was asked about the influence of gangs on the rash of incidents involving calls of "shots fired," which he said now totals 30 for this year, the same as for all of 2015.
"What we are seeing now is locally formed street gangs," the chief said, "forming in response to nationally associated gangs." He said the department "is still trying to get a handle on those numbers [of local gang members]."
An immediate goal, the chief added, is to identify and "arrest as many of these players as we can over the next two weeks."
Tyer also stressed a commitment to protect the "many great things that happen in our city every day," mentioning the Pittsfield Suns baseball season, and downtown theaters and community events. "I am confident they will be safe and lively experiences," she said.
Wynn, asked after the press conference to compare Pittsfield's crime problems with other small cities in Massachusetts, said the problems are similar. Some cities, he said, have essentially "given up" trying to effectively police some neighborhoods, but that isn't the case in Pittsfield.
Late Monday night, Pittsfield police announced two arrests, that of a 24-year-old and a juvenile, in a news release about Sunday night's Circular Avenue incident investigation in which shots were fired into a home.
While patrolling the neighborhood on Monday night, Detective Kim Bertelli-Hunt saw individuals she believed had active warrants. When the suspects fled into a nearby residence at 61 Circular Ave., police got the OK to search it and turned up contraband and made two arrests.
Jerrel Hall, 24, and a juvenile male were arrested on their outstanding warrants. Both were charged with firearms and ammunition charges, improper storage of a firearm, possession of a firearm without a license, and possession of a firearm with a defaced serial number during the commission of a felony. Hall was further charged with possession of firearm with a prior violent or drug offense.
Hall is expected to be arraigned today in Central Berkshire District Court, and the juvenile male will be arraigned on Wednesday.
Jim Therrien at 413-486-6247.
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