Montague police review criticized for lack of diversity and expertise

  • The Montague Public Safety Complex on Turnpike Road. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 5/18/2021 9:00:26 PM

MONTAGUE — A public forum on the town’s recent review of its Police Department revealed at least two major sources of dissatisfaction with the process — the two committees’ limited ability to administer a survey and the relative lack of ethnic diversity on the committees.

The review of the Police Department was started last summer in the midst of national unrest and discussion around the role of police and the potential for systemic racism in police practices.

The review was delegated to two committees — one on the Police Department’s community engagement, and one on the department’s policies and practices on use of force.

When the review was finished earlier this spring, the facilitators of the two committees said their findings were largely positive, and that they did not find systemic racism or abuses in the Montague Police Department.

However, in a public forum with the Selectboard and the two committees on Monday, several residents criticized the committees’ ability to address communities that would be most likely to be marginalized, such as people of color or people who don’t speak English as their first language.

Members of the two committees explained their thinking in the review process, but also admitted that the process had its shortcomings.

One of the most pointed criticisms was that members of the two committees are mostly white people.

“It’s a pretty severe limitation. I don’t want to try to talk around it,” said Deborah Frenkel, who was on the committee on use of force. “I don’t think that anyone on this committee that I know of has personally experienced racist targeting by entities that are in power. ... While we can empathize, it’s not something that we’ve been through.”

Other committee members noted that there were other points of diversity among the committee members, such as diversity of age, opinion and professional background.

“We had a lot of things we didn’t agree on. ... We didn’t always resolve discussions at the end of our meetings,” commented Faith English, who was on the committee on use of force. “Acknowledging the limitation of the whiteness of our committee, I think we did the best we could do.”

The other big criticism was of the committees’ methodology in conducting a community survey, which was one of the major pieces of their work.

Along with interviewing leaders of the Montague Police Department and inspecting the department’s records, the two committees also conducted a community survey that sought to show whether members of the community had had negative experiences with the police, and if so, whether there might also be systemic issues. The survey received about 450 responses.

In designing the survey, committee members acknowledged they were not experts, said Chris Pinardi, the facilitator of the community on community engagement.

And in Monday’s forum, some criticized the survey on the grounds that it did not properly address the diversity of experience that might exist in the community.

Colin Mitchell, a member of the committee on community engagement, said he sympathized with criticisms that the town would have been better served by hiring professionals to conduct the survey, rather than relying on volunteers who were not trained in designing or analyzing surveys.

While the survey did receive some reports of negative interactions with police officers, there were relatively few, Mitchell said.

“There is a bias in that data,” Mitchell said, “because that data represents the feelings of our town, a very white town, that overall has had very easy interactions with the police.”

He added bluntly, “I do not necessarily count this as a success.”

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.


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