Councilors concluded the meeting with a vote of “no confidence” in the Chief.
By Jon Magee
On Wednesday, Greenfield City Council convened their regular monthly meeting before a mostly full audience at the John Zon Community Center. To councilors’ surprise, Police Chief Robert Haigh’s “Mid Year Report” announced that the department would end its night shift staffing as of February 1st. This report and councilors’ questions afterward lasted two and a half hours.
Chief Haigh, flanked by Lt. Todd Dodge and Deputy Chief William Gordon, offered a meandering and frequently sarcastic presentation that lasted 30 minutes. Haigh expressed his grievances against the city council related to the $425k budget cuts they imposed on GPD in May 2022, in the wake of a jury verdict that found Chief Haigh and the City of Greenfield liable for racial discrimination. Throughout the evening Haigh expressed an unwillingness to discuss the reasons councilors cited for imposing the cuts, saying “quite honestly it’s outside of your purview… The mayor supported me, and I thank her for that.”
When Haigh announced that the night shift would be cut completely, he asserted that he avoided funding-related staffing cuts as long as he could, but six officers left the department voluntarily, spanning from July 2022 to February 2023. During this time GPD has not advertised any open positions, even though it received a federal grant of $375,000 to hire three new officers in October 2022. Haigh was starkly pessimistic about the prospects of hiring any officers, asking “Who wants to come work in Greenfield? I’m going to tell you right now, I’m not sure I’m going to get anybody, because who wants to come here when they think they’re going to lose their job in three months?”
Chief Haigh cited various other concerns shaping his decision to cut services, saying that an overnight shift with fewer than six officers would be an unacceptable risk to police and the public. When Councilor Jasper Lapienski (Precinct 7) asked how many officers neighboring departments employ on overnight shifts, Haigh admitted that they employ two to three officers overnight but dismissed this level of staffing as inappropriate for Greenfield.
Haigh also justified staffing cuts by citing the rigid provisions of the department’s union contracts regarding minimum supervisory positions and preferential retention of officers over dispatchers, and officers present indicated their intention to file grievances regarding any potential contract violations. When Councilor Virginia Desorgher (Precinct 3) asked how citizens will feel safe after his decision, Chief Haigh suggested “They will not be safe.” Speaking “to the community,” Haigh said, “you can still call 911. We will answer the phone, but we are going to transfer that call” to the State Police.
Despite his pessimistic outlook, the police chief surprisingly asserted that he was not proposing or asking for any action on the part of the City Council. Even if the department hires new officers, “you’re still not getting your midnight shift back,” he said. “This is a six-month to a year problem that we’re looking at right now.”
Councilors posed numerous questions and comments concerning the process of arriving at this staffing decision, but many of their questions were not answered. When Councilor Desorgher asked who made the decision to cut the night shift, Chief Haigh took responsibility but said the decision was made through consultation with Mayor Roxann Wedegartner and senior police leadership. The mayor said that she agreed to and supported the chief’s decision though it was not “optimal.”
Councilor Marianne Bullock (Precinct 5) expressed concern “that we have a leader in a department who’s coming before us, two weeks before you’re telling us that you’re eliminating night shift, and this has not been brought before anyone, that there wasn’t an emergency Public Safety Commission meeting that was called, that this wasn’t brought up when I was called in to have a conversation with Lt. Dodge a month ago, so I’m…concerned with how these decisions are being made.”
Councilor Christine Forgey (At Large) was more pointed, saying “it’s a poor leadership decision…. There has been ample time for people to work toward this.” She then asked Mayor Wedegartner, “How many times have you submitted a financial order, since the [police] budget was cut… knowing that at some point we were going to come up against this wall?” The Mayor avoided answering the question, and Councilor Forgey recalled only one instance where police department finances were discussed early last summer. Forgey stressed that the City Council has no authority to allocate funding, only to approve or deny funding that the mayor proposes.
In response to criticism by councilors, Chief Haigh said, “All of these things were brought up, they were on Facebook, they were on our [Facebook] page… This is not the first anybody’s hearing this.” To which Councilor Forgey replied, “I don’t do my business on Facebook.” Councilors have in the past expressed their sense that GPD used their Facebook page as a platform to incite bullying against councilors in the wake of the recent budget cuts, in a manner that no other city department facing cuts has ever done. GPD, for its part, has also acknowledged that many of their Facebook followers are not residents of Greenfield, increasingly so after the 2022 budget cuts.
Councilors similarly expressed their concern that no action had been taken last summer when the first officers started leaving, and that no financial order was proposed even in the week since Haigh’s presentation was planned and placed on the council’s agenda. Councilor Mike Terounzo (At Large) said, “The writing was on the wall long before there were six [officers] not going to be there… It just sounds like mismanagement to then put at the very end this aura of gloom and doom, with the subtle undertone of ‘It’s all your fault, council.’”
Councilors expressed dismay that the department has also not been forthright about additional funding they have received, such as $89,000 from the city’s ARPA stimulus funds, discretionary funds from Compensated Absences, grants from the state Department of Mental Health for their embedded social worker program, donations to the K-9 program, or, until this meeting, the $375,000 federal COPS award. Councilor John Bottomley (Precinct 4) suggested the Chief’s staffing decision was an instance of “Washington Monument Syndrome,” where public officials retaliate for small budget cuts by eliminating popular or essential services in order to incite the public against legislators.
Various councilors sought to outline possible paths forward. Councilor Bullock said, “Show us that there is a plan to move forward, that there’s a plan for accountability, for addressing misconduct, that there is a plan to address current concerns and allegations. I’m wondering, do you have those plans?” Councilor Golub encouraged the mayor to pursue outside funding for establishing civilian crisis response, to reduce demands on the police and find more appropriate ways to respond to community needs. In the end, councilors passed a motion to schedule a special council meeting to consider a forthcoming financial order for additional funding for the police department.
During public comment, several residents spoke in favor of more funding for the police department in order to address staffing issues, while others variously described the chief’s presentation as “fear-baiting,” a “hit job,” and a “stunt” designed to induce “pain compliance.” Kendra Sarvadi complained that the presentation “covered a lot of ground and…was kind of hard to follow, with no supplementary materials.” Rachel Gordon remarked that Haigh “isn’t trying to solve this problem. He said he saw it coming for months and he did nothing.”
A handful of members of the public strongly objected to the chief’s claim that the reasons for the original budget cut were irrelevant, citing the jury’s finding that Haigh committed racial discrimination. Resident Benjamin Miner joined others in calling for Haigh’s resignation, reminding councilors that Haigh failed to discipline an officer who drove recklessly and killed another driver, and also failed to discipline another officer who was repeatedly drunk on duty. Miner also criticized Haigh’s retaliation against a community member who filed a complaint against the police, who was fired after Haigh contacted her employer.
Some speakers also suggested that debates about police funding continue to be a distraction from pressing issues that police cannot solve. Maddox Sprengel cited people’s distress about “the housing crisis, the need for peer support, needs related to child care, transportation, more education resources.” Caroline Bruno asked officials to consider “holistic, non-police community response” to meet needs poorly served by the police.
Later in the meeting, councilors passed a non-binding resolution of no-confidence in Chief Haigh by simple majority, 7 to 6. A similar no-confidence resolution regarding the mayor failed to pass, 5 to 8. As of press time, councilors report that a special public meeting to consider police staffing has been scheduled for Wednesday, Jan 25, time TBD, in person at the John Zon Community Center and online over Zoom. There will be no public comment, and no financial order will be voted upon.
Jon Magee is a writer and activist in Greenfield. Image: Greenfield Community Television (via YouTube).
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