Funding of Watertown Police, Requests to Divert Some of Budget Discussed at Council Hearing

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How the Watertown Police Department’s budget is used, and whether there are other ways the money could be spent became a major topic of discussions of Wednesday night’s Fiscal Year 2021 Town Budget Hearing.

The WPD budget was just one of many departmental budgets discussed during the hearing, but it garnered the interested of Councilors and members of the public, many of whom wanted to see a portion spent on mental health services provided by the town instead. The meeting was held remotely over Zoom.

The Police Department’s budget of $10.3 million makes up 6.76 percent of the Town’s operating budget. The WPD has 70 police officers (including 52 patrol officers), nine dispatchers and four civilian employees, as well as the school crossing guards.

Councilors Questions

Since 2011, the WPD has also had a mental health clinician, said Police Chief Michael Lawn. The person works 40 hours a week, and in each of the past two years she has had more than 300 mental health diversions. The clinician works with police on situations involving a mental health issue, opioids and family issues, Lawn said.

Councilor Tony Palomba asked whether the WPD could use another clinician.

Lawn said, “Any help we can get is more that we can serve the community. The individual we have now works 40 hours, and stretches across two shifts. With all the issues and calls for mental illness and opioid issues in the community, the more help the better it is going to be.”

The position is paid for through a grant, which Lawn said the WPD has applied for again this year. Councilor Caroline Bays asked whether the clinician should be made part of the Town’s operating budget. Town Council President Mark Sideris said the Council could make a budget priority to request that the Town Manager make the position a priority if the grant funding is lost.

Councilor Angeline Kounelis noted that for many years the Watertown Police had requested funding to have a detective who would work overnight, and asked if that position had been created and if not, whether it was still wanted. Lawn said the position does not exist and that he would still like to see it happen.

Councilor Lisa Feltner said she appreciated the Police Department’s efforts to build trust in the community, but noted that it must be difficult with people being distrustful or even fearful of police. Protests around the country, and in Watertown have called for changes in the way police operate in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other recent incidents involving police.

Councilor Caroline Bays asked about how officers are trained in deescalating a situation. Lawn said the WPD follows the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (created during the Obama Administration), and one of the main focuses of that program is deescalation.

“We’ve trained our officers in deescalation. We have done anti-bias training,” Lawn said. “Our officer in the Police Department go through deescalation and anti-bias training as part of their in-service training each year. With recent events, you’re going see an increase in that training.”

Palomba said he has been contacted by multiple residents asking whether the Watertown Police have purchased any former military equipment to be used by the department. Lawn said that no military equipment has been bought by the WPD since he has been chief, starting in 2016. Before that, Lawn said, he believes the WPD did make some purchases.

Calls for Diverting Funds

During the hearing several residents asked for the Council to take 10 percent of the Watertown Police budget, about $1.03 million, and move it to the Health Department to hire 10 mental health professionals.

Sarah Pardo said that she believes having someone specializing in mental health issues respond to certain incidents would be more appropriate than the Police.

Pardo said she would like to see people have “the option to see social work, therapist or licensed clinician, instead of an armed police officer that has some training in mental health answering their call. A mental health professional not only can help the immediate situation, but can tap them into a network of resources and provide long term services, if necessary.”

Zoe Grodsky said she too would to see a reprioritization of funding in her hometown’s budget, and wanted to see other issues dealt with.

“We need to invest in the health and wellbeing of Watertown. That looks like moving money to increase community services,” Grodsky said. “Watertown needs to take a stand to support marginalized populations and addressing systematic racism.” 

Resident AnnMarie Cloonan said she would not like to see the Police Department’s budget cut, but rather increased by 10 percent. She added that she thinks mental health issues should not fall under their list of duties.

“I strongly believe in what our police stand for and how police protect the community at all levels,” Cloonan said. “I work directly with medical and  mental health providers and I believe we could take advantage of partnerships that could serve the community. I do not believe in putting public health into the Police Department. They are already overwhelmed with protecting the community in different levels.”

Resident Casey Halle, 24, who grew up in town, said that she believes that Watertown needs to change, or it will risk losing people like her.

“In the next five years I plan to own a home, and I would like to eventually raise a family in Watertown. However, I don’t feel confident in doing so if the emergency response in town isn’t more holistic, involving clinicians, mental health counselors, and the like,” Halle said. “I know that there are many others my age who feel the same way. and would not want to move back home if things continue the way they do.”

The Council did not respond to the comments made by the public. They will meet on Monday, June 29 at 6 p.m. to have a public hearing and vote on the Fiscal Year 2021 budget.

Budget documents can be seen here: https://www.watertown-ma.gov/DocumentCenter/Index/1752

9 thoughts on “Funding of Watertown Police, Requests to Divert Some of Budget Discussed at Council Hearing

  1. Thank you for writing this article! I also wanted to add that Audrey Lin, Zack Rocklin Waltch, Maddie Rocklin, Leyla Mandel, and Clio Quilter-Vagts also spoke out at this meeting for the demand to move $1.3 million to hiring town mental health professionals.

  2. One of the best things in Watertown is that it is safe!
    The Watertown Police Departments is one of the best
    departments around, that is the reason!
    Let our professionals and the council make the budget decisions
    they have done us well thus far.
    Certainly listen to ideas, But there is no need to follow others.

    • Just because we have always done things a certain way doesn’t mean it always makes sense.

      Our world is changing in many ways and rethinking how we budget money makes sense. This needs to happen across all town budgets and if there are ways to save money, spend wiser, allocate better , then we owe it to our community to do that.

      As a taxpayer, I would love to see residents getting some type of tax relief. Our property taxes are very high and most experts agree that we are heading towards very bleak financial times.

  3. Let us have interdisciplinary sharing of responsibilities. The police need to be able to call on mental health specialists when that is the nature of the problem. I believe the mental health personnel should be part of the police response team, when appropriate. I would recommend using some of the (expanded?) police budget to accomplish this step.

  4. As a former community mental health and crisis intervention clinician, I found the rote drumbeat comments by the young residents (ages 17-24?) of our town at the budget hearing concerning.

    Why do they specifically want to cut the WPD budget by 10% (the WPD is 6.76% of the proposed FY 2021 operating budget)? Can they speak to specific concerns they have with the WPD? Have they ever sat down with Chief Lawn or a patrol officer in their neighborhood? Do they have any understanding of how the police budget is utilized? Do they know that Watertown’s police department is one of the 91 out of 351 police departments in MA that is both certified and accredited for high professional and best practices standards? FYI – “ The Certification Program consists of 159 standards, all of which are mandatory. Since these 159 standards are part of the 257 mandatory standards for accreditation, certification is a significant milestone towards accreditation. Accreditation is the higher of the two program awards consisting of 382 standards: 257 are mandatory; 125 are optional. Mandatory standards that do not apply to the agency are waived. Only a percentage of the optional standards must be met; the percentage is based on agency size.“ https://masspoliceaccred.net/about-the-program/

    Then, they stated that they want this money ($1.03M) to go to the Health department to fund 10 mental health professionals. Again, please share any info you have on community mental health and crisis intervention services that might improve the assumed conditions that concern you in Watertown. What analysis has been done to justify this number? For example, do you know how these services are organized in other communities?

    Budget funding should be based on data regarding specified need, best practices, and thoughtful, informed community discussion. Not dropped as a last minute, orchestrated demand at the budget hearing.

  5. I grew up in Watertown, Currently live in Watertown, and am a business owner in Watertown. To even mention a cut in funds going to the Watertown Police Dept is a disgrace. These fine men and women protect and serve us every day! I cannot even imagine why this issue would even be discussed!!!! Thank you Watertown Police and Fire Dept. Gerry Tremarche

  6. Let’s not forget or overlook that people already have the option to not have police respond to their or their loved ones mental health crisis. The solution is simple: if you don’t want an armed officer to respond to your or your loved ones mental health crisis, stop calling the police to respond to it. You already have the option to call a mental health professional directly yourself. But what people making these demands don’t seem to understand is that someone is calling the police because they feel that the police need to be there and be involved. Sometimes a family member or other person observing the crisis feels this way and other times a mental health professional makes this determination for their own safety. Before you go making demands to reallocate funding, change who you contact when a crisis is unfolding or consider if the reason police are being contacted to respond to begin with, it is because they truly need to be there. The answer is obvious, someone feels as though they do need to be there. So do not defund, INCREASE funding so that a mental health professional is more available to respond in conjunction with the Watertown Police. This program that our police already have in place that should be expanded so that it is not just one person working with the police and used as a model across the state and the country in dealing with these types of calls.

  7. I don’t think any funds should be diverted from the police. If you look at the crime reports each week, they deal with a myriad of events, from many people driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol to incidents at the malls or stores, thefts at homes and in parks, drug dealings, and so much more. I have lived here for 40 years and have never heard of any of our officers being overbearing or disrespectful. So many young people are so quick to paint all the police with a broad brush that they don’t deserve. In other states and communities that have had problems, shame on them for not addressing the issues before now. These should not reflect on our police department. Each day when they put on their uniforms to go out to work, they have no idea what they will be dealing with. If you want respect, you need to give respect also. Say thank you to them when you see them and show your appreciation. Otherwise, we may not have a lot of people joining the force going forward. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand how it must feel when they are exposed to criminal and mentally ill people every day and don’t know what’s going to happen. How soon people forget how they handled the marathon bombers and put their lives on the line.

  8. It’s worth mentioning that when I had a police detail in front of my house during gas work, the Watertown cop, the National Grid guys and I were talking about other times they were doing gas work in town. Discussion turned to one Watertown policeman who was well known to his brother in blue and the National Grid guys. The cop would pull over any car that had a flag on it other than the U.S. flag. “Like Irish or Italian tricolors? ” I asked. No, the cop said, “Brazil, Dominican Republic, you know.”

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