Unable to fund request for five downtown officers, Pittsfield seeks alternatives
PITTSFIELD -- The Police Advisory Committee’s request for five new police officers to patrol the downtown won’t be funded in the next city budget, but other public safety initiatives are under consideration.
Committee member Katie Roucher told the board Monday that, after the advisory group wrote a letter last month to Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi seeking the additional officers, a meeting with the mayor was arranged to discuss the proposal. Funding in fiscal 2015 appears unlikely, Roucher said, but forming a Police Explorers group in the city and using the police cadet candidates when possible for monitoring downtown are among options being considered.
Other ideas are to seek grant funding for new lighting in the downtown or for equipment for cadets, Roucher said. And asking Downtown Inc. or large businesses to contribute toward security improvements will be on the table, she said.
That might include exploration of a downtown improvement organization, which Roucher said would receive funding from merchants toward projects and could leverage additional state grant funding.
Representatives with Downtown Inc. requested help from the advisory committee in early February in urging an increase in downtown foot patrols by Pittsfield officers. Although limited foot patrols were brought back to the business district in September, Chief Michael Wynn said they have been funded through police overtime, and more officers would be required to fit full-time patrols into his budget.
The chief said last month that it would take a five-officer squad to adequately patrol the downtown and avoid overtime while continuing to patrol other areas of the city. The committee based its request to the mayor on that estimate.
Wynn said Monday that the mayor is, however, open to separating the cost of patrolling during special downtown events, such as Third Thursdays, from the regular PPD budget, which he said would allow more flexibility to continue the current limited foot patrols by one or two officers.
Bianchi said Tuesday that he appreciates the advisory board’s support for public safety, but added that adding five officers to the PPD force won’t be possible next year. "But there are intermediate steps we can take that won’t cost what five police officers would cost," he said.
One initiative, which Wynn had also mentioned, is to form a Police Explorer program in Pittsfield, which gives youths ages 14 to 20 the experience of learning about law enforcement and meeting and working with officers, Bianchi said.
He said he will attend a meeting later this month at Berkshire Community College involving President Ellen Kennedy and others on campus to discuss working with criminal justice course instructors and students to promote an explorer program and other public service initiatives. Community service is a requirement for BCC degree candidates.
Some police cadets who have undergone complete background checks and are waiting to attend the police training academy also might be hired to help monitor the downtown and communicate with police about any problems, Wynn said. That also helps retain cadets the PPD hopes to hire full-time once they complete the academy training.
With the explorer group, the first goal is to get the organization up and running, Wynn said. In this area, the national organization has been active in Lenox and Dalton. More information is available at http://exploring.learningforlife.org.
Bianchi said the use of technology to help monitor the downtown also will be considered. He said that, since many merchants already have surveillance cameras, allowing police better access to the information might be possible.
The mayor said both he and Wynn meet regularly with Downtown Inc. officials or subcommittees, and he said the options for merchants assisting in covering the cost of downtown security will be brought up. "Certainly this is something that should be discussed," he said.
Downtown Inc. officials could not be reached for comment.