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Greenfield Police Backtrack on Night Shift Cuts

Mayor Wedegartner presented an alternative plan Wednesday drawing on ARPA and grant funds.

By Jon Magee 

GREENFIELD — Braving rain and snow on Wednesday night, Greenfield City Council gathered before a full audience for a special meeting to discuss police staffing. At last week’s regular Council meeting, Police Chief Robert Haigh announced that GPD would end night-time coverage as of February 1. This week’s follow-up meeting began instead with a presentation by the mayor explaining a new staffing proposal that would maintain full shift coverage through February and partial night shift coverage starting in March.

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner explained the new patrol staffing plan would include revised shift schedules of ten hours, four days on, four days off. This schedule would leave an overnight gap of only four hours from 3am to 7am, which the mayor said is the time period with the lowest volume of police calls and is thus more easily covered by the State Police. Patrol officers will receive an additional $300/week payment in exchange for accepting the longer shifts and waiving certain contractual rights regarding shift-bidding and overtime. The mayor also signaled that she plans to commit approximately $150,000 of the city’s ARPA stimulus funds to achieve this level of staffing, in addition to the first installments of the $375,000 staffing grant from the US Department of Justice.

The evening’s presentation marked a significant contrast from last week’s. At the previous meeting, Chief Haigh led the presentation, joined at his side by Deputy Chief Gordon and Lt. Todd Dodge, who remained largely silent. This week the mayor delivered the presentation, with significant assistance from her chief of staff Dani Letourneau as well as Director of Finance Diana Schindler. Haigh sat in the audience directly behind the other officials and only periodically came forward to answer questions. When the chief did speak, his tone was noticeably chastened in comparison to the confrontational tone he struck last week. The mayor likewise adopted a conciliatory, apologetic tone, saying that “The Chief and I, both of us, want you to know that we heard you last week. Your concerns are our concerns, your frustrations are our frustrations.”

In describing how this new plan came to be, Wedegartner explained that after last week’s council meeting she instructed the police chief to come up with an alternative plan to resolve staffing issues. Haigh reportedly worked out this new agreement with the patrolmen’s union and the State Police by 9:30 a.m. last Thursday, a mere eight hours after the meeting concluded.

Several councilors expressed their dismay that this plan was not considered before last week and only after significant pushback from councilors and the public. Mayor Wedegartner did not explain why such a plan was not proposed earlier but likened it to a “hail mary,” a last-ditch effort that was not guaranteed to work out but fortunately did. Councilor Mike Terounzo (At Large) countered that perhaps the more apt metaphor was a “dropped ball.” As Terounzo said, “It’s been eight months since [the budget cuts] happened… I’ve heard your answers like, ‘Well, we didn’t know how much money there was going to be or how much we would have left.’ That’s what accounting is for… While I’m happy some solution has been reached, I think it should be expected that there would be skepticism from the public about how quickly that happened.”

Councilors also asked various questions trying to understand how other parts of the administration’s narrative had changed since last week’s meeting. Councilor Jasper Lapienski (Precinct 7) asked how it was possible that any changes to shift coverage were put off until March when previously Chief Haigh made it clear that service cuts had to begin February 1. Councilor Terounzo also pointed out that last week Chief Haigh dismissed the possibility of hiring any officers in the near future, when he said “We don’t have any money to hire anybody… Who wants to come work in Greenfield?… I’m not sure I’m going to get anybody.” At this week’s meeting, however, Haigh indicated that there were two part-time officers in the department who he would be approaching to ask if they wanted to be hired full-time, as well as two retirees who could be brought back on duty. Chief Haigh, Mayor Wedegartner, and Chief of Staff Letourneau claimed that these were all late-breaking developments, conversations that were had because of last week’s meeting.

Councilor Christine Forgey (At Large) bemoaned the timing of last year’s verdict that found Chief Haigh and the city liable for racial discrimination as well as the mayor’s subsequent actions supporting Chief Haigh to continue in his role. Forgey suggested that it was a coincidence that these events transpired during budget season and appealed to her fellow councilors to “rise to the occasion…put emotions aside,” and “fill the gaps” in the police department’s funding.

Councilor John Bottomley (Precinct 4) noted that he didn’t think the budget cuts were the cause of the staffing issues and complained that “we have no way to check that… Every other department has given us reams of information to review, and yet [when it comes to the police] we get a teeny little blurb, we get something the night of [the council meeting].” Other councilors shared this concern that the police department and mayor’s office were not providing information to support the council’s oversight role. Councilor Virginia Desorgher (Precinct 3) emphasized this point, saying “it’s not acceptable and it’s not a way to do business.” Councilor Guin committed to working with the mayor’s office and the town clerk to develop a system for better tracking information requests from councilors.

Councilor Marianne Bullock (Precinct 5) cited numerous emails she received where residents expressed both concern about police staffing and also a desire to see accountability for wrongdoing in the department. Bullock mentioned there were changes she would like to see underway as soon as possible given that budget season was fast approaching. She highlighted proposed changes such as revamping the Public Safety Commission, reviewing the process for conducting background checks before officers are hired, and reviewing allegations of domestic violence committed by officers. This last issue has captured headlines recently, after an investigation by WBUR found that police departments routinely use a state confidentiality law to prevent the public from finding out when officers have histories of abuse and violence.

Bullock shared with The Shoestring a first draft of other changes she’d like to see regarding public safety, including initial steps towards establishing non-police emergency response. Deputy Chief Gordon had already expressed willingness to support such a program in Greenfield as of last summer.

Several councilors noted their hopes for a revamped Public Safety Commission, though residents have in the past cited major flaws in the PSC, such as a lack of capacity and a tendency to be staffed by former police. The two newest members of the commission did address the council, including one commissioner who appeared in a widely-circulated photo holding a sign that said “defund city council.” Currently two out of five seats on the PSC remain vacant.

Though there was no official opportunity for public comment, one resident did interrupt the meeting, objecting loudly to the lack of public comment in the evening’s agenda. Ryan Whitney exclaimed, “We all know why we’re here… This community wants this man [Chief Haigh] gone.” Whitney received a round of applause from the audience, some of whom held signs with messages such as “No GPD fear-mongering, No GPD bullying, Yes healthcare, childcare, housing, education” and “Greenfield deserves better. Haigh must go.”

In conversations after the meeting, some residents said the evening was a “missed opportunity.” Marianna Ritchey told The Shoestring, “We need to look into other options for taking care of each other ourselves with alternative models, and this could have been a meeting to actually raise that in a public forum.” Resident Kendra Sarvadi agreed, hoping that “maybe when the panic dissipates we can start thinking about alternatives.”

Jon Magee is a writer and activist in Greenfield. Image: Greenfield Community Television (via YouTube).

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