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Local police chiefs address calls for defunding, other reforms, and what they’re doing to help make policing more progressive

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Just weeks ago, police officers were viewed as being among the many heroes working on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic.

What a difference today.

Now, after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man resulting in his death, and the incidents of over-aggressive police tactics during the protests that followed, there are angry calls to defund police departments.

Defunding the police carries a spectrum of meaning, but generally it means taking money from police budgets and giving it to social service and mental health sectors and programs for the disadvantaged.

An ABC News poll released Friday found almost two-thirds of Americans oppose calls to defund police while 34 percent back the movement.

Area police chiefs say police department budgets in small suburban communities are a fraction of that of larger communities.

Losses in funding, they say, would directly affect services and undercut gains in community programs that refocus efforts to reduce crime and make policing more progressive.

“Obviously, I think it’s a catastrophic idea,” said Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney.

Shortly after becoming chief over a decade ago, Heagney created a special unit called the Problem Orientated Policing team, or POP, which is already doing the work critics say needs to be done.

The team partners with public and private social services agencies and volunteers in calls for domestic abuse, mental health and substance abuse issues, homelessness and other problem areas.

“The POP team has even found jobs for people coming out of jail,” Heagney said.

The Mansfield and Norton police departments also have POP teams and other area departments aim to do the same tasks with the staff they have.

The theory behind the unit, the chiefs say, is to make the police department more responsive than reactive to problems in the community.

Traditional police work of responding to a call and determining whether to make an arrest before going back into service is outdated, Heagney said.

“It’s not problem solving,” Heagney said, “It’s not getting to the root causes of a situation.”

Under the traditional model of policing, Heagney said, police would respond repeatedly to the same problem yet expect a different result.

“It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity,” Heagney said.

Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux opposes the idea of defunding city police and pointed to the POP team as the progressive direction the department has taken under Heagney’s leadership.

“That’s the cutting edge of policing services that allows us to be progressive,” Heroux said.

While arrests capture the public and media attention, the hybrid work of POP teams involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work of phone calls and foot work to find people help instead of a ride to the courthouse.

The POP team in Mansfield and the revamping of policies Mansfield Police Chief Ron Sellon started since becoming chief in 2013 has led to reductions in domestic violence case and drug overdoses, he said.

Last year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, recognized the Mansfield police department with its community policing award.

Over the years, Sellon said the government has cut funding for mental health and drug treatment programs and “then they turn to the police departments and say ‘you guys handle it’.”

Sellon and Norton Police Chief Brian Clark said they have wanted to apply for a state grant to have a full-time mental health counselor to work with police but have been unable to find funding.

Instead of defunding police, there should be proposals to supplement the budgets of public and private mental health and other social services that work with police, Sellon said.

Currently, area police departments partner with a host of volunteers and non-profits such as the SAFE Coalition, a regional group of community partners that provides support, education, treatment options and coping mechanisms for those affected by substance use disorder; Learn to Cope, a non-profit support network that offers education, resources, peer support for family members coping with a loved one addicted to opiates or other drugs, and New Hope, an Attleboro-based facility and program that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence.

When there is a person in the throes of opioid addiction, Sellon said police call the SAFE Coalition.

“(It could be) at 2 a.m, so we can get them treatment, which is what they need, instead of a jail cell,” he said.

Sometimes, the number of beds in treatment facilities is limited because of the lack of state funding for those facilities.

“We need more help with mental health. We need more help with opioid addiction,” Sellon said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of mental health problems or opioid addiction.”

Cutting police budgets would reverse the progress they have made working with local agencies and force a turn back to the more reactionary, traditional policing, the chiefs claim.

In North Attleboro, Council President Keith Lapointe said most the of constituents he has heard from are concerned with the level of police training and whether they have body cameras, which they don’t.

North Attleboro Police Chief John Reilly said he is a supporter for exploring the use of body cameras, but there are concerns about the financial costs and legislation currently being proposed about their operation.

In Attleboro, Heagney said he supports using body cameras and has asked for funds in his budget to buy them for the past several years. They now carry a price tag of at least $200,000 and their use, by law, has to be negotiated with police unions, he said.

A local activist, Dakota Walker of Mansfield, says he supports funding for police. But funds need to be scrutinized, he said, when it comes to buying new cruisers, computers or other things that don’t benefit the public.

“I’m not looking to take money away when it comes to what the police need to help the people,” Walker said.

He supports training for police so they can better deal with the public and perform their jobs better. He also said he supports funds to help people with mental illness, money for schools and other social services.

Police chiefs agree there needs to be reforms in hiring and that there is always room for improvement on the way police perform their job.

Heagney said it is time to end the state’s Civil Service system, which he said ties the hands of chiefs on hiring choices and makes it more difficult to remove bad police officers.

“I think police officers should be made up of the communities they represent,” Heagney said, adding that after individuals take the police exam the chiefs have to choose from the list supplied by Civil Service list.

Heagney said police departments nationwide need to be more representative of their communities and hire more persons of color and women.

By doing so, Heagney said, police departments will have better police officers, better policing and a better police culture.

“We’ve been more diverse than we’ve ever been,” Heagney said, who promoted the first woman to sergeant during his tenure. “We’ve been fortunate here, but I’d like to do more.”

Area police chiefs say police officers get training at the academy and at in-service sessions in de-escalation techniques, use of force, mental illness and cultural sensitivity among other areas.

Clark said the level of training police departments in Massachusetts and New England undergo should serve as a model for the nation.

The Norton police department last week was awarded reaccreditation by a private, non-profit organization of law enforcement professionals who scrutinize police operations and services throughout the state.

According to a recent study by state Auditor Suzanne Bump, the state had the highest hourly requirements for police training in the nation. However, the study found enforcement of the requirements was left to cities and towns.

The study also found the state was one of four in the nation with no licensure and certification process, meaning there is no statewide mechanism to hold officers accountable to professional and training standards.

To improve accountability, Bump and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus are calling for the establishment of commission to create a Police Officer Standards and Training system.

The system is supported by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“If you have to have a license to cut hair why shouldn’t you have to have a license to be a police officer? It makes sense. We support it,” Jeff Farnsworth, Hampden police chief and president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, told Fox 25 television.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday said he has been working with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on legislation to create the system in the state and other reforms for the past several months.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering several cases to review the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” that shields police and other government officials from lawsuits over their conduct.

The doctrine was created by judges to protect police from frivolous lawsuits and allow for mistakes that involve split-second decisions made in dangerous situations.

Because of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, lower courts have often dismissed brutality lawsuits. But a change in the doctrine could make it easier for plaintiffs to win damages.

When it comes to allocating funds to police department, area police and municipal officials say the budget process is rigorous and reviewed by town managers, finance committees, city and town councils or town meetings.

“I don’t have extra money in my budget,” Foxboro Police Chief Michael Grace said, adding that he and other chiefs have to justify their budget requests.

In North Attleboro, a Proposition 2 1/2 override helped pay to restore staffing at the police department to levels of the early 2000s, Lapointe and Reilly said.

The funds allowed for the hiring of the police department’s first school resource officer, a position other departments have had for years. The funds also enabled the chief to better staff the detective division.

Those calling to defund the police, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have also demanded the federal government end a program that offers surplus military-style equipment to police in addition to grants to police and the criminal justice system.

“Federal resources that continue to perpetuate police violence and harm against black and brown communities must end,” the ACLU said in a statement this week.

“Congress must reinvest those dollars into resources that end systemic racism, inequality and disparities in black and brown communities. Congress must invest in true health and safety in communities that have for too long been harmed by the status quo,” the ACLU said.

In certain high-risk situations, area police chiefs said they rely on help from the state police or the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council’s regional SWAT team and negotiators.

Metro-Lec is made up of officers member departments for those services because it is more cost-effective. They and the state police train for what are called low-frequency, high-risk events.

They respond to domestic calls or drugs raids when it is known that the suspect may have weapons and are uncooperative, according to area chiefs.

Several years ago, a man holed himself up in a Norton house during a domestic abuse call and fired on the Metro-Lec SWAT team but they did not return fire. The incident ended peacefully after negotiations.

To some calling for systemic change, defunding the police means actually disbanding the police departments.

“Getting rid of police departments? I think it’s going to be as effective as a screen door on a submarine,” Heagney said.

If a police department is disbanded, the police chief wondered whether more people would resort to buying guns for personal safety leading to more threats to public safety and whether insurance rates for property would increase as a result.

But while some consider the idea radical, it has happened.

In 2012, the Camden, N.J., police department was disbanded due to corruption and was reformed into an entirely new department.

Prior to police reforms, Camden was among those consistently named one of the most violent cities in the nation. Now the crime rate is about half, according to a CNN report.

Calls to defund or disband police seem to be aimed at punishing police departments for the actions of a few, according to Wrentham Police Chief Bill McGrath.

“I don’t think any small town is going to go for such a thing,” McGrath said. “To me, the rational heads have to prevail.”

He and other area law enforcement officials have condemned the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But they say police should not be painted with the broad brush because of the heinous actions of those officers and others.

McGrath echoed a report from a Massachusetts Chiefs of Police report in 2015 which said there are about 800,000 police officers in the nation who make 30,000 arrests a day, most of which do not involve physical use of force.

David Linton may be reached at 508-236-0338.

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