(This is the second in a series of articles about the Bedford Police Department – its philosophy, values, personnel, partnership and plans – and how they fit into the current national conversation. Click this link to read Part I)
Bedford police don’t profess to be experts on social problems.
But they are first responders, which often necessitates strong connections with those experts – individuals and agencies.
“It boils down to partnerships,” said Police Chief Robert Bongiorno. “Partnerships build trust, through these programs.”
Until recently, the chief observed, “these programs were unheard of. They did not fit the typical cycle of law and order; They were considered warm and fuzzy. We are proud of the community partnerships that we have formed with other town agencies, our residents, businesses and other important stakeholders in the community.”
Internally, “the Police Department is in partnership with the Council on Aging, Fire Department, the schools and Youth and Family Services, all collaborating through a monthly At-Risk Task Force meeting,” he said. “This group shares resources to identify those high-risk residents that are in most need of services.”
“We all meet regularly and share information,” the chief continued. He pointed to the two full-time social workers now part of the Council on Aging and Health and Human Services Department staff. “They identify residents who might fall through the cracks. We make sure that when police respond to someone at risk, we share this with the other groups. We make sure there are no gaps in services.”
He also detailed the organizational change he made to create a Community Services Unit. “This unit is responsible for hosting our police open house series, Bicycle Safety Day, child seat installations, safe driving classes, alcohol awareness classes, Council on Aging programs, National Night Out, and offering community instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”
The unit also conducts tours of the police station, hosts birthday parties, and meets with religious intuitions and business and citizen groups, he said.
“One example of this is the highly successful Recreation/Police basketball league,” Bongiorno commented. “For the past five years police officers have volunteered their time to coach basketball teams made up of Bedford High School students. Since the program’s inception, we have hosted over 300 students. This is an example of breaking down external barriers that have historically occurred between police and our youth.”
The chief also outlined some of the partnerships with law enforcement and other agencies that transcend town borders.
He said the department is “a strong supporter and proud partner of the Domestic Violence Service Network. This group ensures that every call the Bedford police respond to that is related to domestic violence is followed up by a trained volunteer who can provide much-needed services from housing, counseling, law referrals or just a much-needed voice to speak with.”
Jacquelin Apsler, executive director of the DVSN, said “our robust partnership” with the Bedford police began 19 years ago. She is especially impressed with its wide range of training opportunities. Chief Bongiorno, she said, “has supported and funded three dispatchers, six patrol officers, two sergeants, a detective, and a lieutenant to participate in DVSN’s annual 40-hour advocate training, to increase their understanding of domestic violence from the perspective of the victim and our advocates.”
“Chief Bongiorno understands the intersection of differing perspectives and the importance of finding common ground — precepts to which DVSN is wholly committed,” said Apsler, a member of the Bedford Violence Prevention Coalition. Officers and network staff regularly review cases and develop effective interventions, she said.
Bongiorno continued, “In Bedford, we were the driving force in establishing a regional response in dealing with the opioid crisis. We formed the Central Middlesex Police Partnership, which is made up of police departments from Bedford, Lexington, Carlisle, Concord, Lincoln, Maynard and Stow, and the Concord District Court.”
The partnership employs a full-time mental health clinician and a recovery coach “working within our communities to deal with the lasting and powerful effects of the opioid crisis.”
He noted that the same group, using a grant from the state Department of Mental Health, partnered in establishing a jail diversion program, designed “to divert those with underlying mental health issues.”
Deborah Garfield, director of clinical services for Eliot Community Health Services, anchors the program. “Our role is to provide outreach, support, and referral sources to help people avoid the criminal justice system and get help for mental health or substance abuse issues,” she explained.
The usual process, she related, is for someone to file a complaint with police, who then assess whether the individual warrants a referral. Several local officers are familiar with the diversion program and its staff, she said, and all have been trained in crisis intervention.
“We work closely with the Communities for Restorative Justice to provide another avenue for the victims of crime to have a voice after being victimized,” Bongiorno continued. “The offender tries to repair harm done to the community in a circle that includes the victim and facilitators,” who develop and oversee requirements for an alternative to court sentencing.
The chief said he was first exposed to the practice as a Concord police patrolman in 1991. “It was really outside the box. I was resistant at first but I had a different experience when actually exposed to restorative justice.” Now victims are recommending it when asked about options.” And “restorative justice is a tenet of policing that is embedded in the values of each of our police officers.”
“We also partner with District Attorney Marian Ryan for a youth diversion program and collaborate on restorative justice cases and a host of other initiatives, and with Sheriff Peter Koutoujian on Regional Safe Keep, a data-driven justice project,” Bongiorno said.
Also in the works with the sheriff’s office is “a county-wide restoration center, “where we can divert those high-risk high utilizers away from the emergency rooms into a one-stop center. I’m honored to sit on a county-wide commission for this new initiative.”
The chief explained the department’s relationship with NEMLEC, the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a consortium that provides officers or other resources not available to a small community.
Officers from NEMLEC agencies – more than 60 cities and towns — can be available during an event that requires additional police services. All surrounding towns are affiliated. “The local chief is empowered to make those decisions, and the chief knows the community better than anybody,” Chief Bongiorno stressed.
NEMLEC is often identified with weapons and tactics, but it’s much more, Bongiorno said. “It responds to human situations – a bomb threat in a school, a suicide, missing person. The reason why we might need [NEMLEC] is that our officers don’t have the level of training for a high-risk situation, like a hostage situation or a man with a gun. We want that expertise to defuse that situation.”
Since he began in Bedford, the chief said, NEMLEC has been called for assistance three times – all for help finding persons reported missing. Meanwhile, a NEMLEC-trained Bedford officer spent two hours successfully de-escalating a potential crisis in an apartment involving a knife.