Mass. Police study issued

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Berkshire Eagle Staff 

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Broad change is needed to remedy management and logistical deficiencies in the Great Barrington Police Department and to make it a more accountable operation.

That was the conclusion of a management study of the department released last night in a presentation to the Selectmen, Finance Committee and an audience of more than a half-dozen police officers at Town Hall.

"It's time to turn the page in Great Barrington," said consultant Carroll Buracker.

He noted that morale is at risk, but that he's optimistic about the town's police force.

"Keep them, nurture them, motivate them," and the town will reap the rewards, he advised.

Last night's report summary was based on a 300-page document compiled by Carroll Buracker & Associates Inc. of Harrisonburg, Va., which has conducted more than 250 such studies nationwide. The firm was hired after a year of disciplinary actions, internal accusations and internal friction in the department. Job vacancies have been left open pending completion of the report.

Buracker interviewed department employees, the chief, school personnel, the town manager, selectmen, members of the business community, the Berkshire County Sheriff's office, the town fire chief and Finance Committee.

A review of department records showed that officers are working 16-hour days in some instances to cover unfilled shifts, raising the risk of fatigue and short temper. Special police officers, with less training, are covering full shifts on a regular basis, he noted.

Certain department data on crimes and police activity is inadequate or simply not collected. Supervisors receive inadequate training or none at all to serve in supervisory jobs. Police dispatchers do not have specific dispatch training, Buracker noted.

Base salaries are lower than industry standards indicate. But with overtime pay and special details, five of the department's 12 officers earned more than their chief. One earned nearly $95,000, compared with the chief's annual salary of $63,487 in 2005.

Police should not be staffing the reception and dispatch desk — that's a job for civilians — since officers should be on street patrols, Buracker noted, in one of his more controversial recommendations.

Using a sick-time chart, Buracker noted that sick-time use spiked last year among a number of officers, compared with 2004 — a factor he said is a red flag in any department. He also noted complaints that some officers have often left town while on duty to tend to personal matters.

He was surprised, he said, that the town Selectmen and chief had not implemented a number of critical recommendations from a 1984 study of the police department — many of which are now recommended in the current report.

Department morale is at risk and operations need improvement, he said. "The town needs to fix it," said Buracker.

On the other hand, he said, he was upbeat about the quality of police officers and other town employees involved in the numerous interviews and data collection that's been going on since February.

Chief William R. Walsh Jr. said he has been the sole supervisor for over a year, and his time to address a variety of issues has been limited. He said first priority is to properly staff the department.

Of notable concern to those present last night were what Buracker called "employee themes," which were gleaned from interviews with staff. To surface as a problem, more than one employee had to mention the problem.

Employees noted: Lack of accountability and discipline; lack of a command structure; poor internal communications; outdated policies and procedures; lack of training, misuse of sick leave; absence of formal roll call briefings, inconsistent procedures for installing police cruiser equipment and an insufficient number of police cars.

In addition, "friction between cliques," inconsistency among senior officers, sleeping on duty, failure by some officers to write traffic tickets and lack of coordination in criminal investigations.

The Selectmen and Finance Committee agreed to take up details of the report — which could become issues for the annual town meeting agenda — at their next meeting tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

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