GREAT BARRINGTON — After a summer of protests and calls to defund them, town police say they heard community concerns and say they since have begun to address trust issues with measures that include making use-of-force incidents and other data public.
The Great Barrington Police Department website now has posted brief summaries of all incidents where force was used over the past four years. This includes nine instances of stun gun use, for instance.
It also includes internal investigations, traffic accidents and hate crime reports.
Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh told the Select Board last week that the department had accomplished “what we believe is at least our first attempt at police re-imagination.”
The beginning of this reform stems from nationwide upheaval over deadly force against Blacks, particularly George Floyd — he died in May, while in the custody of Minneapolis Police — and the use of a chokehold during that incident.
Walsh said the approach is based on recommendations from the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ August “Report on Police Reform and Racial Justice,” as well as a police reform bill that is moving forward in the Massachusetts Legislature.
In a presentation, which also is on the website, Walsh explained how the department decided to go forth with some of what a new law would require, including officers’ “duty to intervene” if witness to misconduct by their colleagues, something Floyd’s death drew attention to.
The law also would ban chokeholds, already a local policy unless an officer has lost their weapon and there is no other way to save their own life.
While he said there is more work to do, the centerpiece of the department’s start to the re-imagining is resident trust, and bringing clarity to issues that worry the public after Floyd’s death convulsed the country with unrest over the summer.
Residents soon asked for the department to re-imagine itself. And some had, at annual town meeting in June, unsuccessfully called for defunding, which, Walsh said, would have left one officer on patrol at a time and compromised safety.
“It’s terrible to have one officer on the road by himself … for that barroom fight, that domestic,” he said, adding that he was grateful that voters rejected it.
But, he says it’s clear that more information will help residents trust police.
“There’s no deep, dark secrets here,” he said, also noting that there are some “top secret” policies. He later told The Eagle that these include directives for dealing with active shooters, evidence room management, protection of VIPs, sexual assault investigations and bank robbery responses.
Walsh also said that the department now has two of its members trained in diversity and bias and they now are certified as Massachusetts Civil Rights Officers.
Website data portal
Stun guns have been used 29 times since officers began carrying them in 2013, according to the department’s open data portal, and electric probes were deployed in seven of those. The report is a summary and does not include incident details.
The state requires officers to report the use any time a stun gun is removed from a holster, even if it is not deployed.
And no officer-involved shootings have occurred in the past five years, according to the department.
Walsh, who has been on the force for 40 years and chief for 37, told The Eagle that he can’t recall the previous time an officer used his firearm.
Walsh, who will retire at the end of the year, said officers will get more de-escalation and crisis intervention training, and also were given recent directives about the “duty to intervene.”
“It’s a good idea,” Walsh said, also noting that the department is the first in the county to be accredited by the state.
Select Board member Kate Burke said she thinks the board should review any new policies before they take effect. And member Leigh Davis asked Walsh about community concerns and regarding how local police interface with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, since an Albanian man was taken into custody on Main Street by agents in 2019.
“I’m wondering if there’s any way to address some of the fear that’s in the immigrant community,” she said.
Walsh said the town’s Trust Policy, which requires treating all the town’s residents equally, prevents his department from getting involved, and if a situation required it, he would have to report it to the town.
He also confirmed rumors that the agency is active.
“They are out there, in all honesty” he said. “They have been around; they have been in some establishments recently. And that totally has nothing to do with us. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about it.”