Police in the Berkshires respond to national unrest, violence

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The effects of violence do not discriminate but when certain people or groups are targeted, it can hit closer to home.

In the past month's time, high-profile shooting incidents in the U.S. have rippled particularly through the black, LGBTQ, Latino and Muslim communities — demographics that either victims or alleged perpetrators have been related to. Then, there's the friends, the families, the first responders of all backgrounds whose lives become forever changed by bloodshed.

Thursday's ambush sniper shooting during an initially peaceful Dallas, Texas protest has, to-date, caused the deaths of five law enforcement officers, and the injury of seven other officers and two civilians.

This incident in particular sent a chill through the national law enforcement community, including right here in the Berkshires. But it's also compounded by the fact the Dallas protest was prompted by this week's earlier deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who reportedly died by police gunfire in Baton Rouge, La. and Falcon Heights, Minn., respectively.

These three incidents have yielded outrage all around as they've added to a growing and gruesome chapter in American history of civil unrest and domestic brutality.

So how to respond? How to move forward?

For starters, many police departments locally and across Massachusetts agreed to hold moments of silence at 1 p.m. on Friday to memorialize their Dallas colleagues and their families. Departments from Adams to Otis also posted condolences to Dallas families via social media.

"It's emotional," said Pittsfield Police Officer Darren Derby. "To try to put it into words is difficult."

Tonight, Derby, who has specialized his career to the community outreach and violence prevention component of law enforcement, will help lead the fourth annual "Midnight Run With the Cops" 5K obstacle race to raise funds for Special Olympics. The event includes not only law enforcement members, but also friends, family and community members wishing to support the charity for people with special needs.

"We're still holding the race, but there's also a lot of tension right now, so we'll have to be extra vigilant," he said.

Like many other officers, Derby said he was "shocked" to wake up to the news of the Dallas shootings Friday morning, but said, "I came to work today for the same reason as every day, to protect those who need it and to help those who need it."

Lee Police Chief Jeffrey Roosa said he also took pause with the news. "Those officers lost their lives just because they were doing their jobs that day," he said.

Heavy-hearted as he was, he still continued with his detail duty for Friday morning, directing traffic for a local funeral home procession. There, of all places, he found support.

"Several people who drove by saw me and gave messages of encouragement like, 'Hey, I saw what happened in Dallas, I'm sorry' or 'I hope you're OK.' They support police as many people do," Roosa said.

But nationally speaking, the Lee police chief said that "the them-against-us has to stop."

'I get it. We all have tough days," said Roosa, adding that it's still no excuse; civilians shouldn't threaten law enforcement and that police "don't have the right to be mean to people."

He said that law enforcement has a responsibility to a "guardian mentality" of protecting people, but civilians need to remember "that we're still people, too."

Roosa and other Berkshire County law enforcement colleagues said they felt that community-police relations are better around here than other areas of the nation, "because we're part of the community we serve in," said Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn.

"With Ferguson, no member of the department resided in the community they were policing," he said, referring to the St. Louis, Missouri suburb where in 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white officer. The incident sparked widespread civil unrests, protests and riots.

Berkshire law enforcement also criticized the 24-hour news and social media cycle for damaging positive community relations by perpetuating negative responses and reporting on incidents in pieces and certain perspectives versus after a full investigation and delivery of facts.

"I firmly believe we have a good relationship in the community," said Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, a 31-year law enforcement veteran.

"What blows everything out of proportion is social media. When you have incidents across the country that are caught by someone's cell phone or camera, it's immediately out there, and everybody jumps to their own conclusions. But there's a process that takes place to conduct an investigation whereas social media takes its own path," Bowler said. "If we had an officer involved in a shooting here in Berkshire County, we'd let the process do what it's supposed to do. The DA's office would get involved and investigate, and we'd let the judgement come after the investigation is done."

But that doesn't mean there's always room for revisiting practices and protocols, and trying to make things better.

"I realize there are bad apples in any crop and they should be dealt with accordingly," said Otis Police Chief Roberta Sarnacki.

As a parent, she said she often talks with her daughters about the national shooting incidents, about what she does for her own safety when she's on a call, and how, in general, "people need to be treated fairly."

Pittsfield Chief Michael Wynn recently returned from a July 6 trip to Washington, D.C., where he was part of an ongoing national debriefing on the final report compiled and published in May 2015 by The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, established by Barack Obama on Dec. 18, 2014.

Wynn said that in wake of that process, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs group took it upon themselves to review and respond to the task force's recommendations, listed in a 116-page document. In September 2015, the Massachusetts groups published their own 28-page position paper on the matter.

The report addresses various community policing issues, including body cameras and other video footage, and how these influence public perspective.

"As a result, some law-abiding citizens who, a year ago, would have described themselves as wholehearted supporters of the police, today wonder whether their support has been misplaced or based on naive assumptions," the report stated.

Wynn said, as indicated in the Massachusetts position paper, that one way to begin to shift perspectives and internal police culture is to increase training and make improvements in an open and transparent manner.

"We also don't want people's first contact with us to be an enforcement activity. That doesn't make a good impression on people," Wynn said.

Derby said despite this week's anti-police sentiments, he'll continue to try and make a good name for his fellow officers. "Sometimes that means you have to get out of the cruiser and show them you're a person, show them your humor," said Derby.

Beyond law enforcement obstacle races and polar plunges to raise funds for Special Olympics, Derby engages fellow officers in the national #HoopsNotCrime initiatives and spends a lot of time talking with kids and families in the community.

"People don't realize there are good people out there," he said. "I often think 'What can I do to improve our relationships with people who think [cops are] evil?' It's about having conversations about this, and often."


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