Pittsfield's police advisory board leader wonders: Is group influential or window dressing?

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PITTSFIELD — As national protests around racial injustice spur renewed debate about policing in America, the head of the Police Advisory and Review Committee is grappling with the limited influence her board has over police policy.

Among the challenges that Chairwoman Ellen Maxon identified at a City Council meeting Tuesday was making sure the civilian review committee actually holds sway, and isn't relegated to serving as perfunctory "window dressing" for the city.

"We're just trying to get our feet on the ground and figure out what sort of influence we really do have," she said, clarifying that she was speaking only as a single member. "Hopefully, we're not just a window dressing for the city to say they have a police review board."

Maxon spoke briefly at the remote meeting of the city council, when councilors unanimously accepted a one-page report that detailed the "activities" undertaken by the review board during its first year of existence. Created with a mission to offer advice to elected officials, the commission is also meant to "assist with the adoption and revision" of Pittsfield police rules and regulations and review citizen complaints brought against officers.

However, she said "we don't have a lot of power" and are not involved with investigations or police policy reviews until after those tasks are completed.

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"It is a little frustrating sometimes when everything is after the fact, we review investigations after the fact, we hear about policies after they happen," she said, adding that the police board in Boston is also "struggling" with similar questions over its ability to influence law enforcement and policing.

She did say that a member of the review committee was present recently when Police Chief Michael Wynn reviewed the department's use of force policy, said Maxon. No changes to that policy have been announced.

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Pittsfield's police advisory committee met over a dozen times in its first year. Over the series of meetings members received presentations about open meeting law, the city's gunfire detection system ShotSpotter, the department's partnership with the Brien Center as well as the functions of police oversight committees in various other communities, according to the annual report that listed 13 activities total.

Councilor Helen Moon noted one thing the review committee did this past year — sending a letter in support of building a new police headquarters to the City Council and Mayor Linda Tyer — and questioned whether that was appropriate.

"Do you think that that is in line with the duties of the police advisory and review board? I feel like there could be a conflict there if you're acting on behalf of the police," said Moon.

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Maxon pointed back to the responsibility the review committee has to advise city officials. She said members toured PPD's current headquarters on Allen Street and concluded "our advice is there needs to be a new building."

Councilors accepted the police review committee's first annual report and placed it on file.

At Tuesday's meeting, councilors also voted to allocate $281,025 from the Community Preservation Fund for eight projects: A new dock at Berkshire Community Rowing that will be accessible to the public, invasive species mitigation and new sand at Burbank Park, replacing aging playground equipment at Allen Heights Playground, fixing the facade of the Colonial Theatre building, a historical inventory of endangered properties, developing a building improvement plan for the Christian Center, and providing partial funding to allow Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity build two homes.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.


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