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Racism within the Police Department embroils Greenfield Mayor and City Council

By Sierra Dickey

GREENFIELD — residents called for major cuts to the Greenfield Police Department in council meetings Wednesday and Thursday after a lawsuit verdict revealed racism within the department and resulting inaction by the Mayor. Council meetings were consumed with debate about how much (and who) to cut from the Greenfield Police Department’s budget request. 

Councilors were being called to shrink the budget by an outraged community after a former Black officer won a hefty lawsuit for being subject to racial discrimination by the department. Mayor of Greenfield Roxann Wedegartner is also now under intense scrutiny for failing to act swiftly in response to the verdict. As a result of all this, Greenfield People’s Budget, who have been organizing to reduce local police spending for years, are soon to mount a campaign to recall the Mayor. 

On May 6, 2022, after six years of litigation, former Greenfield Police officer Patrick F. Buchanan won his suit against the Greenfield Police Department and the City of Greenfield.  Newly released court documents describe the verdict: “the jury found that Defendant Chief Haigh and the City of Greenfield (under Mayors Martin and Wedegartner) racially discriminated against Buchanan.” Buchanan was awarded $92,930 in back pay and $350,000 for emotional distress the ordeal caused him. These amounts may also accrue interest dating back to when the case began. 

According to the case, Buchanan was wrongfully disciplined and then illegally passed over for promotion because of his race. The Police Chief Robert Haigh was the main actor behind both discriminatory events. The Shoestring has reported on questionable statements by Haigh before here

Lieutenant Todd Dodge, who testified on behalf of Buchanan during the case, and served as his Union representative throughout litigation, was placed on house arrest and indefinite administrative leave by the Mayor immediately following the verdict. This action has many in the Greenfield community concerned about retaliation. 

According to lawyers for the City and Mayor, Dodge is under investigation for statements he made during his trial testimony. According to court documents, this retaliatory action by the City and the Mayor violates both witness protection law and Dodge’s rights to due process. No one has yet specified which of Dodge’s statements are under investigation.

On Thursday night at the City Council meeting, there was palpable frustration at the Mayor in the air. Councilors seemed to feel that if Wedegartner had taken bold action, there would be less heat on their body to respond with dramatic cuts. From 6:30 to 10:00pm, councilors struggled with exactly how much to cut from the police budget. Organizers with the People’s Budget had demanded $1 million during the public comment period a day before, and councilors proposed 350,000, 400,000, and 650,000 respectively. After a few rounds of voting on the various amendments, the council agreed on cutting the budget by $400,000 which accounts for roughly three to four full time police officer salaries. The council also came to a decision on an amount to cut from overall expenditures, which has not been confirmed yet.

“We need to make this deep and painful,” said Greenfield City Council President Sheila Gilmour about proposed cuts to the Greenfield Police Department budget. During the debate and questioning periods, councilor Virginia DeSorgher read from documents related to Dodge’s house arrest and reminded the room that Greenfield spends some of the highest percentage of their budget on public safety and some of the lowest percentage on their schools in comparison to other similarly sized municipalities in the area. Councilor Marianne Bullock echoed her concerns: “The reality is that our police budget is inflated far beyond neighboring communities.”

“I’m tired of this pity party,” said councilor Jasper Lapienski in reference to other statements by councilors who worried that cuts to the salary section of the Police budget would hurt the newest and youngest on the force. Earlier in the evening, there had been multiple reminders that the Greenfield Police Department employs two women and at least one minority officer. 

“So if you look at what our teachers are making, versus a patrolman?” said Bullock. She concluded her comment to say that while the current budget cuts are symbolic in some senses, the over-investment in the police is a real and ongoing issue. “The reality of it is that the financial piece is unsound. And that is our responsibility as counselors.”

Sierra Dickey is a writer, organizer, and educator living in Gill. Find her on Twitter @dierrasickey.

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