When the Massachusetts Legislature considered a police reform bill that eventually became law in December, police unions threatened to retaliate by taking away campaign contributions.
Berkshire County lawmakers avoided those consequences for a simple reason: They don’t receive funding from law enforcement unions or members, according to records from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
All of the Berkshire County delegation voted in favor of the final amended version of the police reform bill that banned chokeholds, tweaked qualified immunity and established the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to certify officers statewide.
This lack of contributions, some representatives say, represents the different police culture in the county.
It’s just not the culture in Berkshire County to do that. It’s not even something I’ve considered,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, “I’ve never said, ‘I don’t want to take this.’ ... No law enforcement gives me money — it’s just not a thing.”
It’s not who I am,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I tell my colleagues in the Statehouse all the time, the people who hire and fire you are the people who live in your district.
”That has always been my target for fundraising, and to do one event a year,” he said. “I think I charged $25. That’s all I do, and it’s all I’ve relied on for the last 20 years. So, I’ve never targeted organizations or groups.”
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington also has not taken police donations. This contrasts with her predecessor, Paul Caccaviello, who served for nearly three decades. During the race against Harrington in 2018, he received nearly $2,000 in donations from police in October alone. Harrington, since taking office in 2019, has sworn to decline contributions and endorsements from police unions.
“I’m elected. I answer to the people who voted for me, and I want to ensure that the voters don’t perceive that I have any kind of conflict of interest,” Harrington said. “I want the voters to feel calm that I’m going to work to fulfill the promises that I made during my campaign.”
Police unions lobbied extensively against the bill last year, citing concerns with proposed changes to qualified immunity, which shields public officials from legal consequences for actions performed on the job. Unions argued that immunity allows officers to perform their job without fearing legal repercussions, but critics say that the practice prevents accountability.
It is that kind of lobbying with which Harrington fundamentally disagrees.
You [were] either with us or you weren’t, and we’re going to remember who was with us and we’re going to remember who wasn’t,” said Tom Daly, executive vice president of the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has donated thousands to state leaders over the past six years. “If you voted against us on this, chances are very good that you won’t get an endorsement or another penny.”
That’s OK with Harrington.
You see the Fraternal Order of Police, these big police unions that are not working for better work conditions for their members,” she said. “They’re working to have a say over policy. And in my opinion, that is not the appropriate way for unions to operate.”
In Berkshire County, there was a degree of pushback against the bill as well, but not on the same scale as other counties in and around Boston. Pignatelli actively reached out to his constituents to inquire about their concerns.
Let’s just take the time to explain to people what’s in the bill, and addressing qualified immunity, as an example, was critically important,” Pignatelli said. “There was a lot of uncertainty. So, just taking time to clarify things, I think, is really important. I felt that we didn’t do an adequate enough job.”
The Lenox lawmaker was the only Berkshire representative to vote against the conference committee version of the bill early in December, before the governor sent it back with amendments, feeling that lawmakers weren’t given enough time to look over and discuss the qualified immunity question.
Mine was more of a protest vote, but I also had a feeling that there’s some flaws in it. I thought, ‘It’s going to get shipped back to the governor. He’s going to make some amendments,’ which is exactly what he did. And then at the final version, I did vote for it.”
While some wanted more law enforcement membership on the POST Commission, Gov. Charlie Baker did not propose to change the makeup of the nine-person body tasked with independently investigating cases of misconduct and setting police training standards. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn in early April was chosen by Baker to be one of the members.
Area lawmakers hope that Wynn’s presence will bring Berkshire County into the conversation on policing.
I thought it was very good news to have a local police chief on the POST Commission, because it means that the regional perspective can be taken on board, and as well as having an accessible individual who we kind of work with day to day and week to week,” said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. “It really increases confidence in getting the needs of Berkshire County heard through the state process.”
I’m a Western Mass. chief, and we don’t generally have representation from this far west in Boston,” said Wynn, who cited his previous work in police training as one of the reasons he believes he was chosen for the commission.
I’ve seen it from the trainer’s perspective. I’ve seen it from the student’s perspective, and I’ve seen it from a policy developer’s perspective. So, hopefully, I can inform decisions through all three of those lenses.”
The POST Commission will relieve stress on smaller departments in the more rural areas of the county, according to Harrington, as it will take over all internal investigations that otherwise would have diverted scarce resources from small departments.
More resources among departments, as well as easily accessible training for part-time officers in the rural areas of the county, are what many Berkshire representatives are looking to next in the conversation around policing.
Pignatelli said his colleagues often fail to take the time to understand the impact of major initiatives on rural communities.
Police reform police training has to be consistent, whether it’s a small town in the Berkshires or the big city of Boston,” Pignatelli said, adding, “I think it’s unfair to expect a part-time officer in Berkshire County to have to drive to Springfield or Agawam for training.”
Currently, Pignatelli and Hinds are in talks with the Secretary of Public Safety Thomas Turco about expanding the availability of training for part-time officers, but there is no projected time frame for implementation.
I think here in Berkshire County, we have challenges because we’re a mix of a rural community and an urban community. So, we have the kind of challenges that you see in rural places and the same challenges that you see in urban places and we’re severely under-resourced,” Harrington said.
Last year, the budget for the Pittsfield Police Department rose by 5 percent, according to Wynn, citing rising personnel costs. The precise impact of the reform bill on police budgets remains to be seen as implementation continues.