Conversation Begins About Current Watertown Police Services & Proposed Reforms, New Programs

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Charlie Breitrose

Watertown Police Station

Watertown Police Station

During a wide ranging meeting about policing in Watertown, the Watertown Police discussed what they do including community police efforts and training, resident groups brought up concerns and proposed new initiatives and reallocation of part of the Police budget, and there was much discussion about statistics.

The Town Council’s Public Safety Committee met Friday afternoon. Town Council President Mark Sideris made the referral to have the meeting after hearing from resident groups who were concerned following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring.

During Friday’s meeting, Watertown Police Chief Michael Lawn gave an overview of what the Watertown Police Department does during the year, including statistics, community programs they participate in, and trainings provided to officers. He also discussed the upcoming changes the department will have to make as a result of the passage of the State’s Police Reform Law.

Three resident groups, called the Joint Reform Group, also took part in the meeting, and had prepared a presentation with slides, but were not able to give their full presentation. Several participant in the meeting, as well as multiple people sending emails, said it was not fair that the groups were not allowed to make their presentation, and were not notified until 30 minutes before the meeting. Public Safety Committee Chair, Councilor Lisa Feltner, apologized for the misunderstanding, and said that neither the referral from the Town Council to review Watertown Police Services, nor the agenda allowed for resident groups to give a presentation during the meeting.

Ultimately, the Public Safety Committee said voted 3-0 to continue the discussion of police services at another meeting six week’s time. Members said they thought people needed time to digest what was presented and discussed on March 12, and the Police Department and Town administration need time to gather more information to respond to questions and requests from residents.

Tensions started at a higher than normal place, even for an issue that many are passionate about. The meeting took place the day after dual rallies were held outside the Watertown Police Department, that included a Back the Blue group and the Solidarity Against Hate – Boston. The rally took place after a controversial video about police was shown to students at Watertown Middle School.

Also, Lawn and others took exception to a recent story on a Boston television station and said the statistics in the story were not presented fairly. One detail that he objected to was the statistic that percent arrests involving black residents is five to six times more than the percentage of black residents in the Town’s population.

Many residents spoke during the meeting, with many saying they have always had good experiences with the Police Department, and others saying they would like more information and data about the Watertown Police in an effort to improve the Police Department.

Police Presentation

Lawn said the past year has been the most difficult one of his 32-year police career.

“There has been so much division in our country this past year and now we are seeing it in our own community,” Lawn said. “I would like to say on behalf of all the men and women of the Watertown Police Department, that is not what we want. I hope today in this meeting we can all be respectful of each other’s opinions and some how find some common ground to move forward for the betterment of policing in our community.”

The Watertown Police have 70 uniformed officers including 52 on patrol, they responded to 26,097 calls in 2020, and dealt with 1,174 crimes and made 321 arrests and summons. They also gave 1,367 citations which resulted in 29 arrests.

Community Policing has been a focus for the Watertown Police for years, Lawn said, in which officers try to build relationships with people and groups in the community. Some of the examples are programs for youth, such as Cops ‘N’ Rec, the Whooley Foundation gift program at Christmas, the Mountain Bike police, Girls Talk at the Watertown Boys & Girls Club and High Five Friday at Watertown Schools. Also, each month, the Chief meets with people at the Watertown Senior Center and the police work with people in Project Literacy, a library program where immigrants learn English.

All officers receive anti-bias and diversity training, crisis intervention training, de-escalation training and officer wellness training. They have had trainings with an Imam from a mosque in Cambridge and clergy from St. James Armenian Church to learn more about groups living in Town, Lawn said. Also, officers have taken part in the Kingian Nonviolence Training and Restorative Justice programs.

The Police Department also runs the Citizens Police Academy where people get an in-depth look at what the Watertown Police do.

The WPD has been accredited since 2003 by meeting standards of the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Programs. The department seeks reaccreditation this year, Lawn said.

In the meantime, Watertown will also be preparing to meet the requirements of the Police Reform Law. There are about 25 action items. Some include a variety of trainings in areas such as: de-escalation and disengagement tactics bias free policing, use of force and racial profiling.

“We will have to comply with many other policing changes, training and also furnish other posts with all our internal affairs and disciplinary records,” Lawn said. “This is going to be an enormous task for our Police Department and will take up a lot of our administrative staff’s time. We fully embrace these changes and are ready to move forward with the work.”

Lawn also noted that the requirements of Police Reform are largely unfunded mandates.

Resident Groups’ Requests

The Joint Reform Group is made up of three groups, the Watertown Citizens for Black Lives, Uplift Watertown and the Kingian Response Team. The groups have four projects which they seek to work on with the Watertown Police, said Merle Kummer, coordinator for the Joint Reform Group.

  1. Regularly analyze data on policing activities, implement remedies to documented racial disparities, and ensure that WPD aligns its use of force and other policies with the new Massachusetts Police Reform Law.
  2. Provide Kingian nonviolence and antiracism training to all WPD officers, and increase diversity, inclusion, and equity in the Police Department.
  3. Develop new, collaborative approaches to address common root causes of police calls and crime and reallocate budgets accordingly.
  4. Create a voluntary WPD/Community Advisory Board or other official mechanism for community input.

Chuck Dickinson, who is working on the Community Advisory Board said that it is not meant to be one that oversees the police and hears complaints of police misconduct. It is envisioned as a place where the community and police can engage.

“This is not a civilian review commission. The emphasis is on dialog and communication. We know that the Department has demonstrated a real commitment to community policing and the Chief’s presentation highlighted so many different things — I myself did the Citizens Police Academy,” Dickinson said. “In our view however, there is a gap. There’s really not an established forum or method for ongoing dialogue between the Department and the community, so this is something where we think a Community Advisory Board would be helpful.”

Shivani Sharma, who is part of the effort to work on training for the police, said that the groups would like to have training from facilitators from multi-racial and multigenerational backgrounds, to work on deescalating volatile situations and help officers understand other perspectives.

“It can help community members develop mutual trust with the Police Department and also make them feel comfortable seeking the help that the need,” Sharma said. “And it would hopefully help them share critical information about criminal activities.”

Statistics

Much of the disagreement during the meeting was how statistics were used, how they were presented (or not), and what they meant.

Prior to the meeting, the groups put out a statement saying that the rate of arrests for black residents of Watertown (about 10 percent) was five to six time higher than the proportion of the population — about 2 percent. Lawn said that the number is misleading because many of the arrests were for charges that the police are required by state law to make an arrest, such as domestic assault and a warrant from a court. For instance, in 2019, there were 14 arrests of black residents of Watertown, with one court order, six domestic charges and four major crimes (including fire arms and drug distribution charges), one traffic arrest and two minor crimes. In 2019, there were also 45 arrest of black suspects who were not residents of Watertown.

The statistics for incidents where black suspects in those arrested, as well as the percentage of black suspects in incidents where no arrest was made were also presented. In 2020, black suspects made up 18.5 percent of those who were arrested by Watertown Police, while black suspects were 21.05 percent of those who were part of an incident where no arrest was made.

Lawn said that comparing Watertown with other communities of the same size is not comparing apples to apples.

“What I don’t think is fair is when you compare us to a town that doesn’t have a Home Depot, a Best Buy and a Target,” Lawn said. “And that boarders three major cities.” 

Eric Kemp-Benedict of Watertown Citizens for Black Lives said that the group is interested in finding out more about what led to the difference in the percentage of black residents compared to the percent of the Town’s population.

“What we are doing is pointing to some disparities which is a sign of something to look into,” Kemp-Benedict said. “As you emphasized the explanation could very well be quite clear, but the way you presented the statistics is not answering that question.”

He added that he wants to make sure the same statistics are being compared to get a full picture, for instance, if the numbers for numbers of black residents being arrested vs. those not arrested, the same information should be presented for white residents.

Resident Mark Leonard said that he believes the statistics can be misleading without knowing the underlying facts. He said he would like to see information about how many complaints have the Police Department has received with regard to how they engage with the public.

“Not just particular groups but just in general. I think it is a good leading indicator as to problems that may be manifesting themselves in a police department or a group,” he said. 

Sarah Pardo, from Uplift Watertown, suggested that the Town look at reallocating some money from the Police budget to the Health Department and other areas to address areas such as mental health, substance abuse, food security, affordable housing and health care. She also said it would provide an unarmed response from a group outside of the Police Department.

“So based on that we think that we should move some money from the Police Department Budget to the health and human services to provide both preventative measures for those call and also for crises,” Pardo said.

The group looked at how much Watertown spends on police, per resident, and found it was about $260, while other communities in Massachusetts within 10 percent of the population size spend on average $201. Pardo also pointed to the police budget being about 15 times larger than the Watertown Health Department’s. The budget shift would remove about $2 million from the police budget.

Town Manager Michael Driscoll said that he does not think that many towns of the same size as Watertown are either suburban or rural. He compared Watertown to the surrounding communities and found that the Town’s per capita (he calculated about $270), is well below the average of $335 if you include Watertown and Boston (Watertown would be fourth highest). If you remove Boston, the average is $282, and Watertown is third highest.

In addition, Driscoll said that not all communities include funding for crossing guards, dispatchers and an annual budget for replacing police cruisers in their budget. In Watertown, those combined add up to about $1 million, Driscoll said.

A $2 million reduction in the Watertown Police would mean cutting 20 officers, or about 30 percent of the police force, Driscoll said.

Future Meetings

While people seemed to be at odds with each other, Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that he believes that everyone has the common goal of making Watertown and the Police Department the best they can be.

“I think we can be very proud of what we have already accomplished here in Watertown with our Police Department especially compared to what is happening in other cities across the country,” Piccirilli said. “But there is always room for improvement. As public officials we have an obligation to examine our municipal practices in order to determine how to do things better. This means challenging ourselves and our community to have hard conversations, to ask uncomfortable questions, to listen and reflect, and to actually take meaningful action.”

Piccirilli said that he sees Friday’s meeting as the first in a long journey. Feltner had tentatively scheduled a meeting for March 19, but Piccirilli suggested that the Committee wait to let people digest what was discussed Friday, and to give the police and others time to come up with more information. He suggested having the next meeting in six weeks, and the Committee unanimously approved the motion.

8 thoughts on “Conversation Begins About Current Watertown Police Services & Proposed Reforms, New Programs

  1. Statistics should not be given any merit in this discussion.
    Many aspects of any statistic can be used to show opposite “evidence”.
    Take the comparison of percentage of black suspects arrested to the population. That percentage could be used to show bias of the police or it could be used to show an attitude problem of that population. Statistics can be used as a weapon of racism or of bias of the police depending on who is using it. It’s like pointing your finger in a dark room and saying “see there it is”.

    • No, the evidence overall is clear.

      In the United States, official government studies have always proved that Blacks commit several times the crime that one would expect from the Black percentage of the population.

      This has nothing to do with Watertown. It’s a nationwide.

      It’s simple to look up.

      If Blacks are truly being targeted by Watertown police, we need examples, and we need examples of mistreatment of non-Blacks too.

      • That is absolutely incorrect. Look up the FBI uniform crime reporting data and you will see that Whites commit more crimes in almost every category. Equating Black people to criminal behavior is a symptom of a long and racist history in this country and unfortunately many in this town are completely oblivious by continuing to endorse these views.

      • There haven’t been any complaints beyond the virtue signaling groups who participated in the meeting. I thought it was interesting that the majority of them are not longtime residents and have no real connection, knowledge or experience with anyone from the police department. The cause of more being arrested and incarcerated in this country is more than a policing issue. It’s caused by poverty, lack of mental healthcare, education, jobs, affordable housing, etc. No one wants to address these issues that unfortunately put many struggling black Americans in a police situation. Stop blaming the police for everything that’s wrong in America. They seem to be the scapegoat for the larger problems facing black Americans.

  2. “It’s caused by poverty, lack of mental healthcare, education, jobs, affordable housing, etc. No one wants to address these issues…” Actually, that’s precisely what Uplift Watertown was asking the town to address.

  3. Let us hear from POC to gain another perspective . We need to ensure that ALL persons feel welcomed and respected in Watertown. Thanks everyone for continuing the dialogue.

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