Greenfield looks to expand community policing, increase transparency

  • Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. in his office at the Police Station. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner at City Hall. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Police officers Laura Gordon, left, and William Gordon pose for a portrait with their St. Bernard therapy dogs, then 9-week-old Donut, and then 7-year-old Clarence, in June of 2018. Laura Gordon was recently appointed the Greenfield Police Department’s community resource officer. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2021 4:55:14 PM

GREENFIELD — Looking to expand community policing and increase transparency with the public, the Police Department has created a new community resource officer position to make important connections, including with vulnerable populations and social service agencies.

The new position was among the topics discussed during a virtual City Hall event Tuesday night. Mayor Roxann Wedegartner started the question-and-answer event with Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. and newly appointed Community Resource Officer Laura Gordon by asking about community policing in Greenfield and what their visions are for the future.

“It started some time in the mid-1990s, and things have progressed to everything being about community policing,” Haigh said. “The money dried up after several years, but our ideas didn’t here in Greenfield — we incorporated community policing into our every day policing.”

Haigh said when he took over as Greenfield’s police chief, he thought about how officers should present themselves when dealing with the public.

“We want to treat people fairly, be even more transparent,” he said. “That’s why Officer Gordon is our new community resource officer, and we hope to grow the program. We want to see where this goes.”

Haigh said Gordon is well known and does not shy away from the public, whether she’s with one of her comfort dogs, like Officer Donut, or talking with homeless people, feeding those who are hungry or listening to a business owner.

“She’s in a perfect position to make this program successful,” he said.

Gordon said she loves having face-to-face interactions with the public, so she feels she is well-suited for the new job.

“I’ve learned, like everyone else, how to navigate through the pandemic and still do my job,” she said. “I hike trails where I know I’ll run into certain populations. I want to check on them and make sure they’re safe. I try to get them services, if they need them.”

Gordon said she’s been in the new role for about a week and hopes to not only stay in touch with all of her contacts, especially downtown, but to make new ones and network. She said she plans to form even more collaborations with local social service agencies than she already had done.

“I’ll follow the avenues that are already working,” she said. “I’ll walk, bike, visit apartment complexes, talk with people face-to-face.”

Gordon already works with agencies like ServiceNet, the Salvation Army and Clinical & Support Options. She said she’s excited about what they’ve been doing to provide services to the people of Greenfield who need them most.

Primary focus

Haigh said he and his staff recognize that reform and change are needed, and that all police have to address areas of concern.

“We have to break down some of the walls that have been there,” he said. “In early 2020, we started really talking, having conversations about it and how to get going, and then the pandemic hit and we went from enforcement to being reactive and proactive.

“We need to be more caring souls and not just answering 911 calls,” he said. “I truly believe that we all legitimately signed up for this job because most, if not all of us, wanted to help people.”

He said that is now his department’s primary focus.

“We have become more of a conduit for people,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, there are a lot more people in isolation and they need someone to help them.”

While many people, including some in social services, had to find ways to work remotely, Haigh said police haven’t been able to do so.

“Some of their clients used to be able to just walk in off the street and seek help, and they haven’t been able to do that during the pandemic, so many have turned to us,” he said. “People have been challenged to the point they’ve never been challenged before.”

Haigh said it’s important for the public, as well as officers, to take care of themselves mentally during trying times and beyond.

“We’re doing the job somewhat differently,” he said. “There needs to be lots of compassion and follow-through.”

Haigh said some interactions are more charged than ever because of the pandemic. For instance, some business owners find themselves in situations they never did before, like arguing with a patron who refuses to wear a mask.

“We didn’t have those before, so we’re there sometimes to de-escalate the situation,” he said. “We have to be understanding of both sides.”

Being transparent

Haigh said the Police Department is constantly looking at racial disparities and other issues people are most concerned about.

“We are being transparent,” he said. “We accept public records requests from anyone who wants to learn more.”

People can use NextRequest, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and public records software to request information. He said stops and arrests, for instance, can be broken down to show the ethnicity of those involved. The Police Department is also working on a plan to submit a monthly report to the city’s Public Safety Commission.

The Charter Review Committee is also looking at the possibility of changing the charter to require not only the Public Safety Commission, but a civilian review board.

“There’s a lot of reform coming,” Haigh said. “We’re making changes, but also there’s a lot of reform coming from the state as well.”

The chief also reminded the mayor and the public who tuned into the virtual City Hall event that there are some folks who don’t want police help, even when they offer it. Gordon said that’s why it’s so important to have a liaison like her to get to know people so there’s trust and they feel more comfortable dealing with the police.

“Our jobs are so much more than going out and making an arrest,” she said.

She and Haigh agreed the last thing they want is to arrest someone who is in crisis. That’s not the goal, but rather the last resort.

“We assess a scene and the people involved, and hopefully it’s about de-escalation, which every officer is trained in, instead of arrest,” Haigh said.

When a member of the public asked why the police budget at about $3 million a year is so high and schools are not funded like they should be, Wedegartner answered the question by saying schools receive about 37.9 percent of the city’s total budget. All of public safety — including police, fire, dispatch and others like animal control — receive a total of about $7 million each year.

“I always want more for every department, and it takes a lot of money to educate children, but we work with what we have,” Wedegartner said. “The police budget is a small fraction of our budget.”

Haigh said the Police Department is not overstaffed. Some of his employees recently received promotions to jobs left vacant by retirements or officers leaving.

“We’re not adding new positions, just filling critical ones,” he said. “We need a good command staff or we’re left in limbo, and that’s not good in the police world and that’s not good for the people we serve.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.



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