Monday, April 12, 2010

City School Northampton: Week 7 - Police

Welcome to a new class at Northampton City School. Last week, we learned about Planning and Development. This week in City School we learn about the Northampton Police department.

Hopefully, for your sake, I have learned my lesson and will finally err on the side of brevity. Since Police is a topic many of us think we know about, I may be able to skip some information. You will soon find out that our Police here in Northampton are not the same ones you grew up with.

Police Department

Police Chief Russ Sienkewiecz led the talk. He was joined by some of his senior staff, and later we had a tour of some Police vehicles. Sienkewiecz has been Chief of the Northampton Police Department since 1994. In the Police Department, hierarchy is clear, and it was clear during our class (the uniforms are also a bit of a give-away) as everyone called him Chief (he actually was not in uniform.) He answers to the Mayor, but government has only control over budget and appointment authority. The Police are otherwise independent. The Northampton Police must enforce the Massachusetts Constitution and State and local laws, and they must keep up to date on new laws and case law. Our Police Department was established when Northampton incorporated as a City in 1884.

Budget and Staffing

The Northampton Police Department had a budget of $15K in 1911. It now has a $4.6M budget. This is down $200K from 2009. The last proposition 2 1/2 tax override saved 9 positions. 92% of the costs are for personnel. The Northampton Police have 62 Officers and 5 civilian employees. Like many other city departments, they make do with what they have and are creative with planning and grants, but their demands are far higher than their funding and staffing. They have about 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents which we were told was a reasonable number in general. Unfortunately since we have a busy town with a lot of transient traffic, this number is not necessarily adequate. For example, in 81% of local auto crashes one of the drivers is from out of town; in 52% of crashes both drivers are. 43% of arrests are for non-residents and 19% are of homeless. As you know we have a busy night life here. We have parades and events, many local colleges and one in town, a VA, a hospital, also we have Route 91 and traffic to and from there, and so on.

For perspective, but not necessarily a fair comparison, let's contrast the Northampton Police with the New York City Police - the country's largest and oldest and 'finest' Police department. Founded: NYC 1840, Northampton 1884. Budget: NYC $4 Billion, Northampton $4.6 Million. Number of Officers per 1,000 residents: NYC 5, Northampton 2.1. Budget divided by officers: NYC $100K, Northampton $75K.

Social Service

The Northampton police are also a Social Service agency (just as we will learn next week, that the Fire Department, is a medical service agency.) They are available at all hours. Last year, they assisted in 572 suicidal mental health commitments (escorts to hospital), received 11 requests to take elementary school kids to school (I think I got that right). There were 60 unattended deaths a year which means they have to be investigated. There were 381 domestic violence calls; 7,066 motor vehicle citations, 34,000 9-1-1 calls, 3,900 serious felonies. They supervise 11 part-time school crossing guards and issue local firearms permits. They also host the Civilian Police Academy every year, which a 10 week course and is what Northampton City School is based on.

The Elusive Goal

One day there will be a new Police headquarters. Our class was meeting at the new Firehouse on King Street, because there is no room to meet at the current Police facility which was built 45 years ago. That building is 9K square feet and in disrepair (repairs are on hold because of the budget and because a new building is always around the corner.) The current building doesn't have a real lockup, that is at the Jail. To meet its current needs, it really should be four times its present size. There were quite recent plans and money almost allocated to build a new facility, but plans were stopped due to the war economy. The plans are available and a project is 'shovel-ready' and waiting, (hint, hint, Mr. Obama) but alas there is no stimulus money for this type of development.

To become a Northampton Cop

Captain Scott Sovino led the talk about what goes into being a Northampton cop. We also heard from Captain Joe Koncas about administration. Sovino has been at the job for 24 years. 10 as an officer, 10 as a sergeant, and he has been a Captain since January. He is head of Operations. Our police department is MPAC accredited. This allowed our force to be eligible for educational benefits. Unfortunately this state benefit was cut last year. Our Police could accept anyone with a high school degree, but part of accreditation is to meet higher standards. As such, our police are harder to hire and there is more to their training. The result is that they are better at what they do. To hire a policeman here, they must have an associate degree (AS) or sometimes be MPTC (state Police Academy) trained. They must go through a process, so there are often as many as four empty positions. A dozen have been lost to federal agencies (one them was an officer who was the main subject of the book home town by local author Tracy Kidder.)

To become a Northampton cop you have to take an exam which is offered every 2 years, then pass medical, psychological, and physical tests. Only one in 10 pass. After that they get 21 weeks of training (currently this is in Springfield, but the location moves around.) Then they have 15 weeks of field training (on the job) and evaluation. 1 in 3 drop out in training. After that, they are on probation for the first year. They learn about the law, CPR, defensive tactics, firearms, and equipment. They eventually become familiar with 600 documented policies (these and more were compiled as part of the MPAC accreditation) and all the street names in town. All of them have to live within 15 miles of the Northampton City border. All of them have tried pepper spray on themselves.

Who's On?

Our Police rotate over three shifts: 7am to 3pm, 3 to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am. There is always at least senior Sergeant in charge. A shift usually consists of 1 patrol lieutenant, 1 sergeant, 7 patrol officers (1 on foot, 5 in cruisers, 1 at the station), and 1 to 2 detectives. 6 officers do bike patrol (3 day and 3 evening.) Additionally, they transport cruisers (they don't call them Police cars and I suppose nobody else is allowed to drive them), do administrative activities like paperwork, and testifying in court. They answer calls, investigate crimes, and pursue "self-initiated activities". Here's a list of what they do.

Eventually an officer will take on multiple duties. There is a highway safety officer who does accident reconstruction and Crime Scene Services which do an off-broadway version of CSI. There are 8 field training officers, a forensic artist, a firearms instructor. There are detectives who are on call, but usually doing day or night shifts. Believe it or not until 1996, if you called 9-1-1, the phone was answered by Police, but now there is a civilian dispatch center which we will visit and hear more about next week. One officer is actually assigned to the public schools. Funding for that specific position was cut, but they decided to keep Officer St. Onge (DARE since 1995) in the elementary and middle schools. He plays an important role which allows early intervention with our youth. Additionally, there are the civilian staff who will do quality assurance on the paperwork and do other things like bill for alarms, leaving the Police with more time to police.

The Gear

After all that, we still had not seen a police car or the Crime Scene Vehicle. Our class eagerly went outside to get a tour from a Police Training Officer and the Crime Scene Sergeant.

Police cars are always running. This might be because Police Officers need to keep their feet warm in winter, cool in summer, but mainly because they need to be ready at a moment's notice, and mostly it's because they need to charge their car batteries. They have lots of gadgets. There are radios, both local and regional. Lights on top that flash and spots. And their lights are bright. There are sirens and horns. Radar detectors - front, rear, and hand-held. There is a mounted laptop with a data connection. There is a video camera that automatically turns on at a stop. On their person, they have another radio and an audio recorder. There were a few other things that I may have missed, but you get the idea. The back seat of a cruiser is now hard-plastic and the windows are protected from being 'kicked out' by a metal grille. In the trunk, there is a big gun locked up (if you know me by now, you know I don't know my weaponry, so I won't elaborate.) There are blankets (to cover unsightly stuff) and gloves and tools and such, and, for a child in need, there's a teddy bear.

The Northampton Police have a fairly new Crime Scene vehicle. It was purchased and then custom outfitted. They are proud of it. It has a power inverter and equipment to sample DNA and fingerprints. It has a pop-up canopy that you might take camping and was used during that rainy night of the recent arsons. It also has a fingerprint camera that can be used with special powder to find prints in real time. It has gadgets that scan for clues using different light spectrum. They all take training and come in big plastic crates that buckle close. Some of the equipment is occasionally borrowed by other local Police departments. (I do not have many other notes on the gear. It was cold and dark out, the class was a little later than usual, and I don't watch CSI.)

December 27, 2009

The arsons in Ward 3 made for a watershed moment for Northampton. It tested the Police Department, the Fire Department and Dispatch (we'll hear about the latter 2 next week.) It tested the Police Officers. It tested the Crime Scene vehicle, the many backup plans, and the book of 600 documented policies. The consensus is that they passed. They are competent, always ready and able.

Next Week

Hey. This week was fun. Wasn't it? If you agree or have some feedback, please leave a comment.

Just wait until we get to the next two weeks of City School. Next week, we hear about Fire and Dispatch. The week after it's Public Works. I promise you will be interested and surprised. Remember, it is the 21st century and this is Northampton.

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