As cities and towns across the country grapple with fundamental questions about policing, Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno thinks his department is a national role model.
“We have a core fundamental belief in problem-solving, with empathy,” Chief Bongiorno declared. “We humanize every situation, and that is embedded in every one of our men and women. We were doing a lot of what the national reform movement is calling for well before it became the norm.”
Tensions between police and protesters in major cities have made headlines for nearly two months, often leading to demands to “defund the police.” Meanwhile, in Bedford, police officers have responded to demonstrators in front of the Town Common with gestures of support. And the fiscal 2021 police budget was approved by town meeting on July 11 without comment.
“We feel that the community dictates how they want to be policed, not the reverse,” Chief Bongiorno explained. “We are a department that is driven by values.” And those values are manifested in a philosophy known as community policing.
“Community policing is a concept embedded in what each officer does on the street every day,” the chief said. “We are looking to problem-solve, we are looking to identify underlying issues. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
“Joe Friday (from the 1950s television show Dragnet) could say, ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ and make a report. We go well beyond that. We look for the causes, whether [in] a family situation or a neighbor dispute or any type of crime problem. We are looking for the root cause, we identify the issues, and follow up.”
The culture, he said, is reflected in the departmental mission statement: “We are professionals dedicated to promoting individual responsibilities and community commitment through law enforcement and education, working in partnership with the community. By doing so with integrity and pride, we will ensure safety and security for all citizens.”
“It is vital that Bedford trust its police, and that trust must be consistently earned,” Town Manager Sarah Stanton commented. “With the backdrop of an important national conversation around policing, diversity, equity, and inclusion, I look forward to continuing this work-in-progress with our police, the Select Board, and the residents of Bedford to ensure that the Bedford Police Department is a department of which we continue to be proud.”
“It starts with the top – the Select Board, the town manager. There’s an expectation about how we will police in Bedford,” the chief said, adding that those principles were already in place when he succeeded Chief James Hicks in 2011.
“When you look at the culture, it’s far different than others,” he continued. “When I came to Bedford, I said, ‘Are this community and officials really that nice and professional?’ I was worried if I would fit in. What I was told was, ‘It’s the Bedford way.’”
The chief pointed out that besides implementing community policing and other initiatives, “Our officers also responded to a three-year average of 14,850 service calls. Most of our complaints are related to traffic issues — over 400 motor vehicle crashes every year. We devote lots of uncommitted patrol time to enforcing and educating our commuting public.”
And he added, “We still must be prepared to investigate sexual assaults, bank robberies and other violent crimes from which no community is immune.”
The chief emphasized departmental transparency. “Several years ago, we put all of our major policies onto our website, when it was not common for police agencies. We want the public to know they are there.” He added, “We take it a step further – just because the policy says we can, our values say we can’t.”
Among the 10 policies and procedures spelled out on the Police Department website include arrest, dealing with mental illness, immigration status, juveniles, professional standards, and use of force.
There is also a “professional standards” section, including the process for addressing complaints. The policy requires “that all allegations of employee misconduct are appropriately investigated and promptly adjudicated; regardless of the source of such complaints (including anonymous complaints), through a regulated, fair, and impartial professional standards program. Additionally, all reports or accusations made against members of the department, or the department in general, from all sources shall be completely investigated in order to ensure the integrity of the department and its members.”
There haven’t been a lot of recent investigations, the chief said, and most of them have been internal, evaluations of performance. For the past 18 months, he reported, there have been four complaints from outside, one of them involving a social media post. Whenever possible, he said, the department strives for “immediate resolution.” For example, maybe an officer issued a citation instead of a warning to a driver. Or a citizen objected to the tone in an exchange.
Proper and adequate training is a cornerstone of the department’s ability to execute values-driven policing, Chief Bongiorno said. “The state mandates 40 hours, but 40 hours a year are not enough to keep up with trends. Things are changing in policing so drastically, and the investment the community has made in additional training shows in the delivery of service.”
The “progressive models” are developed by the Massachusetts Police Training Council. The range of subjects includes community engagement, racial sensitivity, identifying racial bias, “how to deal with mental illness; jail diversion and restorative justice; use of force and non-lethal options; domestic violence response; opioid response.” the chief said. “Basically, I think our officers walk the walk – we back it up with our values and the delivery of our services.”
“Our members have taken part in advanced de-escalation techniques,” he continued “We have advanced training in crisis intervention training, which requires that every participant receive 40 hours of advanced mental health training. Our commitment remains to diversity and inclusion training, and all of our officers have been trained in fair and impartial policing, procedural justice, and police legitimacy.”
“We have a tremendous relationship with the schools,” Chief Bongiorno continued. “It is one of the strengths of our community living initiatives.” He mentioned Sgt. Jeff Wardwell, the long-standing school resource officer, “who is well-known throughout the community for the work that he does that has gone unheralded. There’s not a person who graduates from that high school who does not know Jeff Wardwell and the positive impact he has had.”
“Respect and collaboration go right up to the relationship I have with the superintendent. Students and teachers have benefited.”
Bongiorno added that “we’ve transformed that foundation to campus resource officer” at Middlesex Community College, “the first model nationwide.” Sgt. Jeffrey French is “embedded in day-to-day life” among faculty and students, the chief said, noting that at a recent campus vigil in memory of unarmed Black victims, “the organizers specifically asked that Jeff attend,” which illustrates the spirit of “partnership and trust.”
Fewer than 100 police departments in the Commonwealth are accredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission. Bedford is one of them – reaffirmed most recently on June 4 –, and the chief of police says that is significant.
“The Police Department had to meet 257 mandatory standards and a minimum of 69 optional standards,” he explained. The voluntary process, which starts with a self-assessment, “is a proven modern management model; once implemented, it presents the chief of police, on a continuing basis, with a blueprint that promotes the efficient use of resources, and improves service delivery to our community.”
He provided some examples of criteria for the accreditation process:
- “Strengthens accountability, both within the agency and the community, through standards that clearly define authority, performance, and responsibilities.
- Requires a comprehensive, well thought out, uniform set of written directives.
- “Requires a preparedness program to respond to natural or man-made critical incidents.
- “Is a means of improving an agency’s relationship with the community.”
“I remain confident that our police department has adapted through the years to enhance and embrace the concepts of 21st century policing,” Chief Bongiorno declared. “We work daily to build trust and legitimacy to the community we proudly serve.”