Out of the cruiser, into the community: Pittsfield police, residents agree 'park and walk' foot patrol a good measure
PITTSFIELD — On a bitter Wednesday afternoon in January, with temperatures in the mid 20s, Officer Alexander Sawicki parked his cruiser on Forest Place and radioed in a message to headquarters.
Then he set out on foot for Tyler Street. Ice crunched under Sawicki's shoes as he walked up and down the sparsely occupied sidewalk for 15 minutes, exchanging pleasantries with the only man and woman he encountered.
"One of the biggest parts of being a police officer is talking to people," said Sawicki, who's been with the department for about two years.
About three months after the Pittsfield Police Department introduced a "Park and Walk" initiative of 15-minute foot patrols on each shift, Sawicki said he sees evidence members of the community are appreciating his presence.
The initiative was put into place last fall by Police Chief Michael Wynn in response to an outcry from Pittsfield residents who say the city needs officers on a regular foot patrol to both make members of the community feel safe and build positive relationships with youth.
Good communication skills are an imperative part of the job, he said, noting that on a warmer day, he's able to engage with more residents. Over the last few months, Sawicki said, residents have become more comfortable approaching him to report suspicious activity in their communities.
Or just to chat.
Besides walking the beat on Tyler Street, Sawicki often will stop by Allendale Plaza, which has heavy foot traffic, or the Morningside Community School when classes let out.
"I love the job. I really do," he said. "It's different every day. You're active and you're involved."
Some community organizers say while the initiative is a good start, it's not enough to achieve what a full-time foot patrol would.
Linda Kelley, one of about 600 residents who signed a petition in support of a regular foot patrol, said regular police presence in the Westside and Morningside neighborhoods would build "human-to-human" relationships between the officers and the youth.
The children would grow up with positive first encounters with police officers, Kelley said, and officers will recognize that the youth aren't much different than they were.
"These things make a palpable difference," she said. "You don't get this through Park and Walk in 10, 15 minutes. It just doesn't happen."
The petition was initiated by Will Singleton, former president of the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, who has been advocating for a dedicated foot patrol for about a year.
He said the idea came to him when he was contemplating how to address "a spurt of violence over the last two years."
"Many people are fearful that when people have to call police to report something, they have to give their name," Singleton said. "People are reluctant to come forward."
If officers build rapport with citizens, especially people of color and of low economic means, they will be more likely to communicate when they need help and to share prudent information with authorities.
"There's a sense of antagonism between police and regular folks," he said.
Wynn said his department is dedicated to community policing and is proud of the work his officers do in schools and parks.
If the department was adequately staffed, he'd bring the dedicated foot patrol and other units that had been cut back to the city, he said.
But with fewer than 100 officers having a full-time foot patrol assigned to 78 blocks of the city, as Singleton recommended, is not possible, Wynn said.
For departments with successful foot patrol beats, those officers are in addition to their regular staffing, Wynn said.
"If we take an officer [and] put him on a dedicated walking patrol, they're not a fully functioning police officer," he said. "There are certain things that they cannot do."
Wynn estimated that bringing on a dedicated foot patrol beat with the current staffing would cost the city about $4,300 a week in overtime pay.
If the department was able to increase staffing to 120 officers, from its current maximum of 99, there would be wiggle room to create new units for the department.
The department currently has 97 officers, but about eight of them are not available for immediate deployment, he said.
"We want those positive contacts," Wynn said. "We will do foot patrols when the staffing allows."
Wynn said many of the foot and bike patrol beats that were once used in Pittsfield were funded by federal community policing grants, but that money dried up in 2008.
The City Council referred the matter to the state and federal delegation, requesting that they appeal for any community policing funds that are available.
"I don't want us to leave tonight thinking that there's no way anything can be done, but I also don't want anyone thinking that the City Council can just do this," City Councilor Peter White said during a recent meeting. "It's not that this can just happen overnight."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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