By Lee Vorderer
Editor’s Note: Chief Robert Bongiorno came to Bedford in 2011 and was voted a new 5-year contract by the Selectmen earlier this year. With thanks to Lee Vorderer for her report on the Chief’s thoughts about his service in Bedford and his look to the future.
It’s not surprising that Bedford’s Police Chief Robert Bongiorno is a police officer–growing up, he was surrounded by family members who were officers and it’s all he ever wanted to be. He loves his job here in Bedford but points out that it’s a very different job from the one he dreamed of as a child.
Bongiorno describes the job then as the ‘Joe Friday’ approach from the old police show Dragnet – find the offender and make an arrest. While that certainly still takes place, he says that perhaps 90% of current policing does not require law enforcement, at least in the traditional sense. Rather, it reflects public health needs and a public health approach to responding to domestic issues, substance abuse, and mental health problems.
Because of systematic failure in the ways our society deals with these public health issues, the paradigm for responding to domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues is now that police respond first.
Communities have police forces; very often they do not have resources more targeted towards domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health problems. The law enforcement component of police work is still required, but the social services component is strong and growing. “We’ve found that with policing in the 21st century, we can’t arrest our way solving problems,” says Bongiorno.
As a result of the pressure to provide good quality service to those cases that aren’t so much about law enforcement, partnerships have developed to enable police to do their jobs better, with a higher level of sophistication and Bongiorno is proud of these partnerships.
The state Department of Mental Health (DMH) became such a partner, and in Bongiorno’s words, DMH hit a grand slam by helping local forces learn the new skills necessary to serve the community’s real needs.
DMH offered training grants; it made already funded expertise, like that of Eliot Community Services in Lexington, available for police officer training and guidance. Now every officer in Bedford is trained in mental health first aid, and the Bedford Police Department has pledged to enroll every officer in Critical Intervention Training (CIT), a more robust 40-hour, week-long course. Working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Bedford was one of the first police departments in MA to make this pledge.
Bongiorno credits his officers’ openness to new ways of thinking about the work of policing as being responsible for the success that the force has had. Here’s an example: With a grant from the state Department of Mental Health (DMH), police departments were offered a trained counselor to co-respond with police to public health types of calls. At first, this idea of having a full-time, funded social worker available to go with officers was foreign, and there was some resistance. But co-responding was working in Watertown and being talked about in Arlington. What started in Watertown is now a regular feature in Bedford and the surrounding towns.
The program has resulted in much more appropriate responses, de-escalated situations, engagement of other more relevant community resources, and a drastically reduced arrest rate.
Bedford was the second town in Massachusetts to get this grant, and Bedford along with its police partners from Concord District Court were the first police departments in the Commonwealth to be awarded a regional grant by DMH.
When Bongiorno came to Bedford as Chief in 2011, he found strong community support for the police, well-trained officers, and a well-run town. Instead of just moving in and taking charge, he spent his first few months on a listening tour, learning what his officers had to say about what worked and what was needed; learning from and listening to town administrators, elders, clergy, the schools, Department heads. As a result, he developed buy-in from all those community stakeholders in what the Bedford police needed and could become. That buy-in has proven itself over and over again, with police requests receiving support from stakeholders who feel that they have a real role in supporting the Bedford Police Department and its future.
Bongiorno cites Sheriff Peter Koutoujian as being committed to supporting local police as they handle these new kinds of emergencies, and Koutoujian’s support has resulted in many new ways to use data to inform police response strategies.
In addition to data-driven justice, other non-traditional programs have developed to allow police to try new ways to serve their communities including a robust Domestic Violence Services Network (DVSN) and the Jail Diversion Program (JDP) that make it possible for Bedford to really provide what their citizens need.
Another tool in Bedford Police’s toolkit is called Restorative Justice, a victim-based initiative that offers a diversion from the traditional criminal justice system. Its goal is to repair the harm that has been done to the community by a crime. It brings the victim and the offender together for a facilitated dialogue to repair the harm to the victim and the community. Steps in the process include a circle of dialogue between the victim, the police and members of the community, a closing circle that recapitulates what’s been said, and a contract developed with all the participants that details what the Offender must do in order to complete the Restorative Justice program. If the contract is not met, the offender returns to the traditional criminal justice path.
All Bedford Officers are trained in Restorative Justice. Data show a lower recidivism rate than the traditional criminal justice system and higher satisfaction rates for both the victim and the police officer involved.
Bedford is still a small town, and Chief Bongiorno embraces the small-town, community policing approach that has been in place for years, where people know and trust the police and where the police feel part of the community. New initiatives– a comprehensive staffing study, the planned expansion of the police building to accommodate new officers, and an expanded presence in schools – will be designed to reinforce that relationship.