The Changing Face of Suburban Policing…Jan. 27, 2016
By Nancy Arsenault
Last week, Stow Police Chief Bill Bosworth joined the police chiefs of neighboring towns on a panel addressing Suburban Policing, hosted by the Acton Area League of Women Voters.
The police chiefs of Littleton, Acton, Boxborough, Maynard and Stow described what they are facing today and how community policing has changed over the years. While the towns differ from one another in size, demographics, police budget and other factors, all agreed that the job description for today’s police officer is very different from even just ten years ago.
Stow Police Chief Bill Bosworth agreed with the other chiefs that there are three main societal issues behind most police work today: 1.) Rising drug abuse involving heroin and prescription drugs 2.) Domestic Violence and 3.) Mental Health Issues. Chief Warren Ryder of Boxborough said, “We are dealing with a broken judicial system and a broken health care system. The police have become the only stop, the only point of contact for many people.”
Chief Bosworth said, “I won’t say there isn’t a drug problem in Stow, but luckily it is not to the extent that is found in many other communities. There is heroin, cocaine, and prescription drug abuse here that cannot be categorized within race, age or economic base. It is across the board.”
Bosworth said that while Narcan is a lifesaving option available to police in helping to prevent overdose deaths, it cannot be guaranteed that police will get to an overdose victim in time. “The window of time is very short that Narcan can do the job. If we are tied up at an accident on another side of town, we may get there too late,” he said. While Narcan can turn around a drug overdose, it doesn’t necessarily turn around the drug abuser. Bosworth related an incident where an overdose victim was found in the bathroom at Dunkin Donuts at Shaw’s Plaza. A Narcan injection saved that person, prior to being rushed to the hospital. “He called us as soon as he was released, asking how much Narcan we had given, because he wanted to make sure he could get high that night,” said Bosworth.
Domestic violence is not something new, said the Chiefs, but the police response to it now has changed dramatically from years ago. Chiefs said that just ten years ago, police would arrive at a home where a domestic disturbance may have taken place, and they would try to calm down the aggressor and speak to the couple or the family to try to encourage a resolution for the time being. “Our solution was as simple as asking one person to sleep upstairs and the other to sleep downstairs. We’d leave and probably be there again in another two weeks,” said Acton’s Chief Francis Widmayer.
Stow’s police files hold more than 100 local restraining orders covering the past several years, with about twenty now active. At least 10-12 new ones are filed every year in Stow, said Bosworth, though many are for people only living here a short time who then move on to other communities.
Now, if there is a bona fide domestic violence incident, the aggressor can be taken into custody or the victim is encouraged to leave the home, for his or her protection. Bosworth said the police now monitor individuals assumed to be high risk for recommitting domestic violence, pose a physical threat to a family member or perhaps have a past history of convictions or restraining order violations, etc.
Mental Health Issues
Bosworth and the other Chiefs have said the incidences of persons with mental health issues living among the general population have increased the number of police calls for those who formerly would have been institutionalized. “We used to bring 5-6 people a year to Emerson Hospital for evaluation or protective custody due to mental health issues. Now, with the deinstitutionalization of people with mental health problems, we bring four people a week to the hospital because we don’t have any alternatives and they could harm themselves or someone else,” he said.
Just about two years ago, a group home was established in Stow by an agency in Framingham that houses people whom they are attempting to reintegrate into society, said Bosworth. Six residents plus staff members are at the home, and according to Stow police, they are there several times a week, sometimes multiple times a day.
They respond to calls for everything from physical violence between residents to physical altercations between residents and staff, suicide attempts, intoxication, mental health issues and other calls. Police have been called to remove these people and others, after causing disturbances or displaying odd behavior in public places, along Stow’s roadways or in local businesses. Bosworth said there are also residents living in their own homes who should be taking medication or are on medications related to mental health, and again, the police intervene when problems arise.
Bosworth and the other Chiefs said that these three areas have become overwhelming and time consuming for their officers. “Police officers today have to be doctors, lawyers and social workers,” he said. All of these towns recently banded together to win a grant that brings professionals in the fields of mental health and social work to assist local police departments. They are experienced with treatment methods and jail diversion programs that will keep those with mental health issues out of the general jail population and help police identify and deal with mental health situations they encounter.
Bosworth is looking forward to more contact with the clinician for mental health, saying she has already ridden along with officers on calls to the most troubled individuals. “But she is also serving all of these other towns,” said Bosworth, unsure of how much time can really be devoted to specific Stow situations.
Bosworth did say that two programs offered through Concord District Court are already showing value to the police department. One is the voluntary Restorative Justice program, to which individuals can be referred, and with the support of police and social workers, individuals can work to better their direction in life, hopefully avoiding jail time or repeat offenses. Drug Court is also a special program that offers treatment alternatives to incarceration. Training for two officers, Stow Prosecuting Officer Gary Murphy and Detective Cassandra Elia, will allow them to better interact with troubled individuals, said Bosworth.
“Things have really changed in how we do our job, or even what our job really is,” said Bosworth who has been policing in Stow for 33 years. “We change with the times and are trying to do the best we can.”