'Mission creep' in policing a backdrop to reform, says Michael Wynn, Pittsfield chief

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PITTSFIELD — Police Chief Michael Wynn questioned the foundations of contemporary policing Friday during a Q&A with community members examining police reform.

"The system is broken, and it's been getting more and more broken for my entire career," he said.

Wynn told the roughly 80 participants of the Zoom meeting that local policing has experienced an identity crisis in recent decades, buffeted by frequent changes in focus as different national crises surface.

"On Sept. 11, 2001, overnight, we became homeland security specialists and counterterrorism people. And then it stayed that way until the explosion in fentanyl, and then we all became anti-drug, anti-drug smuggling experts," he said. "Every time there's an incident of national significance, we get retasked and reoriented."

"I'm not familiar with another profession that's experienced so much mission creep in the last 25 years, to the point where even our officers don't know what's expected of them," he added.

The comments came during a meeting between community and police arranged by Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, an alliance of religious congregations dedicated to social justice initiatives. The meeting was a follow-up to a June 14 march organized by BIO, where Wynn and demonstrators promised to "come to the table" and "work towards systemic change."

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Participants were invited to ask Wynn questions through the software's chat function. Some picked up on Wynn's comments about the changing mission of law enforcement, asking why the chief doesn't resist.

"Unfortunately because of the way we draw our authority and the way we're sworn in, we're accountable to the Commonwealth for these new missions," Wynn responded. "As national crises emerge, they don't really have a conversation with us. They're just like, `Hey, this is what we expect you to do.'"

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Others asked about changing the department's use-of-force policy.

Wynn explained that, while Pittsfield could institute a new use-of-force policy for its officers, any evaluation of potential police misconduct would be based on how courts have interpreted the U.S. Constitution, not on departmental policy.

According to Wynn, the appropriate use of force by law enforcement personnel is evaluated under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Officers are judged on whether their use of force was reasonable.

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"It's a very low threshold, and it is the threshold across the country right now," he said.

The threshold required to change the precedent, though, is high, in his view, and could require a constitutional amendment, national legislation deemed constitutional or an overturning of existing precedent by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Wynn did not discount those possibilities, he views them as significant obstacles to achieving change on a national level.

"That's my fear," he said. "We'll do the work, and then we'll lose that momentum and we'll backslide."

Jack Lyons can be reached at jlyons@berkshireeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND.


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