Town administrator disputes claims after Blandford police force resigns
BLANDFORD — Two days after the town's four-person Police Department shocked the community by resigning en masse, town officials are trying to get the word out that their departure has virtually no effect on public safety.
In Blandford, a small town of about 1,200 people located east of Otis, Massachusetts State Police troopers are the ones who respond to almost all police calls in town, according to Joshua Garcia, interim town administrator.
"Nothing has changed from before," Garcia said Wednesday. "The state troopers at the Russell barracks respond to 90 percent of calls."
On Monday night, interim Police Chief Roberta Sarnacki, who lost her job as police chief in Otis last month, and the three other officers submitted their resignations in a letter to Blandford town officials, citing unsafe working conditions.
The officers said the town's police cruisers are in such bad shape that they often have to answer calls in their personal vehicles. A news release signed by Sarnacki and Officers Chris Anciello, Gage Terlik and Krysten Scapin discussed ongoing issues related to their police radios, poorly fitting bulletproof vests and cruisers.
It also touched on inadequate staffing and pay of $14 to $15 an hour.
Garcia disputed the claims of unsafe working conditions, noting that radio transmission issues are something public safety officials in most hilltowns, including the state police, battle. And, Garcia said, their pay is consistent with, or higher than, other municipalities of Blandford's size.
As for the cruisers, Garcia said Sarnacki recently raised issues about one cruiser, and the Select Board told her to get it fixed and it was repaired.
But Sarnacki said that one cruiser repair was only the "tip of the iceberg" and, on its own, ate up $2,000 of the department's $11,000 equipment budget.
Sarnacki, who is also a full-time teacher in Berkshire County, said she didn't lead the walkout, and had encouraged her officers to hold off a few days when they initially broached the subject.
"Basically, in the last couple of weeks, things sort of came to a head," she said Wednesday. "My appointment was coming up to expire, and basically the officers told the Select Board I was doing a good job, but the board decided they were going to post the job."
The department had been operating with many issues for a "long time," Sarnacki said. When she came on in June as interim chief, she said, she tried to do what she could to fix the problems.
But instead of keeping Sarnacki on, like some of the officers suggested, the town started discussions to regionalize its local police operations with another local department, the former chief said.
The officers had asked the town to keep Sarnacki on and "felt like they weren't being heard," Sarnacki said.
Sarnacki said she was considering applying for the permanent chief position, but wasn't sure.
About the same time Sarnacki took the Blandford position, the town of Otis decided not to reappoint her to the position of police chief, which she had held for nine years.
Over the past year in her position in Otis, there had been a dispute over motor vehicle charges she filed against a juvenile of a prominent Otis family. The family, and another individual, sued the town for her handling of the case, according to their attorney, Raymond Jacoub. Otis recently settled the case outside court, but details have not yet been nailed down, Otis' attorney, Jeremia Pollard, said recently. He didn't immediately return a call Wednesday.
Garcia, who has been filling in as town administrator since April, feels confident that the conditions of equipment were not the reason the Police Department decided to walk out. Sarnacki's interim position was due the day after the department resigned.
"There has so be some ulterior motive," Garcia said. "This is someone who was deeply interested in the position and is not happy that it isn't being given to her on a silver platter."
Town officials in Blandford were not initially aware of the Otis suit against Sarnacki when they hired her, but learned about it since.
But that dispute wouldn't alone have impacted the town's decision to hire her, Garcia said.
Some town officials don't work out well in one municipality, but are wildly successful somewhere else, he said, adding that town officials encouraged Sarnacki to apply for the open permanent police chief position.
"We kind of thought of [the interim police chief position] as an opportunity for her to step it up and gain some footing, but to our surprise, it didn't end like that," Garcia said.
The town of Blandford was also surprised with the media attention the department walkout has gotten, grabbing headlines in outlets like The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
"I think there are a lot of folks who don't understand small-town culture [and] think it's a big deal," Garcia said. "I think there is some confusion on some aspects of small towns and how police operate."
Sarnacki said that local Blandford police might respond to zero to eight calls a shift, but disputed that state police take 90 percent of calls in town.
Concerns that the media attention would attract people with criminal intentions to Blandford prompted Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cochi to provide several of his officers to patrol the town over the past two days. State police also have increased their presence, parking cars outside town buildings, Garcia said.
"We were safe before," Garcia said. "I don't know how much safer we could even get, but we are now."
The position of a permanent Blandford police chief has been posted to the town website and other recruiting platforms, and a deadline for applications is set for the middle of next month, Garcia said.
"We need a police chief that's willing to see the bigger picture and work with the Select Board to unbiasedly explore all options," Garcia said.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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