With two years under his belt as Foxboro’s top cop, Chief Michael Grace this week said the town's police are moving to overcome shortages in staffing, headaches stemming from police reform mandates and community initiatives.
Delivering an annual progress report requested by selectmen that touched on budgeting, stadium issues and operational changes prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, Grace identified staffing as the primary challenge facing local law enforcement.
Over the past year, Grace said, three officers have left Foxboro for positions with the state police, another transferred to Western Massachusetts and two others remain out indefinitely with serious injuries.
“In the spring we were running with six officers down,” he said. “That’s an entire patrol shift.”
Although openings are being filled primarily through overtime, Grace stressed the agency remains in full compliance with state and federal requirements, as well as internal protocols.
“We’ve never not answered our calls,” he said.
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic initially helped to ease staffing problems within the department by allowing dedicated school resource officers to supplement patrol duty. But with all schools fully open, including the K-12 Foxborough Regional Charter School, officers Frank Azevedo and Will Monterroso have refocused on local classrooms.
“A lot of this is that I just can’t get people here,” Grace said.
Ongoing concerns about the town’s ability to recruit and retain qualified police officers have prompted a measure on the Nov. 15 special town meeting that would remove Foxboro police from the state Civil Service system.
Despite the staffing challenges, Grace said Foxboro remains committed to statewide efforts to establish police accountability mechanisms relative to background checks, use-of-force training, department certification procedures, record keeping, “no-knock” warrants and racial profiling policies
“As we move through these steps we are meeting every benchmark,” he told selectmen, later adding: “Training with the police reform has been a massive undertaking.”
And that doesn’t even include operational demands for service, which continue to increase.
Grace said that Foxboro police, on average, respond to more than 69 calls a day -- or nearly 3-1/2 calls every hour. This does not include calls involving Gillette Stadium, which are tracked separately.
Rebutting the suggestion that police have been reluctant to engage in motor vehicle stops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace said local officers issued 3,200 traffic citations over the past year, exclusive of stops which resulted in verbal warnings.
In order to meet these demands, Grace oversees a department with a $5.24 million operational budget that supports 39 full-time officers, two administrative assistants and an animal control officer. In addition, the department employs 20 reserve officers and two police matrons.
Besides payroll, the $5.24 million figure covers vehicle and equipment purchases, as well as training, court, technology and office supply costs.
Grace said the department continues to embrace a community policing model developed under the Obama administration that emphasizes six key pillars: building trust in the community, policy and oversight, technology, community policing, training/education and officer wellness and safety.
“This is what we build off of,” he said.
Local police also continue to oversee, or participate in, an expansive menu of community programming under the direction of Sgt. Valesay Collins, with a half-dozen outreach events in October alone.
Collins is also responsible for overseeing the department’s school resource officers, who double as juvenile court officers.
“We educate kids, we save kids and we kind of help them out when we can,” Grace said.
Police also have stepped up efforts in response to domestic violence, which Grace characterized as a “call for service that occurs on a regular basis.”
Beyond the initial response, Grace said a team of officers with specialized training follow up on every domestic violence call in hopes of defusing the potential for future incidents.
Following the presentation, Town Manager William Keegan said that Grace has done an outstanding job during “a very difficult climate” across the country.
“He’s taken on some very difficult challenges,” Keegan said. “This police reform act has not been a walk in the park for any chief in Massachusetts.”
Grace ended the briefing by thanking townspeople for continuing to support local police.
“I have officers who have come over from other departments and they are just in awe of how they are treated by the residents in town,” he said.