Editor’s Note: This is the third 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, or this link to read Part II.
The Bedford Police Department likes to say it’s value-driven. As Chief Robert Bongiorno puts it, “We respond to good people who are having a bad day. We are here to serve.”
Conversations with a range of Police Department personnel – all Bedford High School graduates — indicate that they all walk the walk.
“Concern with the needs of others has been part of the department’s game plan before there was such a thing as ‘community policing,’ said Sgt. Patrick Towle, a Bedford policeman for 32 years. “I have seen officers buying food for a woman who ran out of state assistance. I’ve seen guys changing drivers’ tires and arranging rides, shoveling driveways. This kind of stuff happens all the time; it’s part of police culture everywhere. There was a woman who needed furniture moved to make room for a hospital bed. Guys went on their own time to do that.”
“We always lend an ear to somebody going through a hard time,” said 17-year veteran Gary Martin. “We set somebody up with addiction treatment. It makes it easier to do your job when you know how to approach someone and talk to them, and they know you’re willing to help out.”
Patrolman Brian Ricci, who joined the force only nine months ago, agreed. “I really enjoy what I do and am happy with opportunities to help people. I feel like I’m giving back to the community that gave a lot to me.” And one of the most senior members, Lt. Detective Scott Jones, commented that “the chance of going above and beyond makes you want to come to work.”
Justin Brooks, part of the corps of police-fire dispatchers, noted that “we work with the community, and we try to see it all the way through when we need to help someone.”
They all grew up in Bedford, like a significant cohort of the department. Civil service historically has given candidates a rating edge in their home-town departments.
Law enforcement, Towle said, “was something I always knew I wanted to do, even at an early age.” He had some great role models in the Bedford Police Department. Patrolmen like Cary Whelpley used to stop traffic so he and his friends could cross the Great Road at Fletcher on the way to Center School. Lt. Francis Sullivan and Sgt. Alden French were parents of high school classmates. “I knew them first as dads – then I kind of figured out what they did for work,” he laughed.
After graduating from BHS in 1983 and earning an associate degree from Middlesex Community College, Towle took police exams wherever he could to improve his placement on the candidates list. He even worked as an officer with the Manchester, NH force for two years. “I never drove a cruiser – I walked for the first two years of my career. Even in a city, you get to know the people in your neighborhood.”
Towle moved to the Bedford department in the summer of 1988, and he said that since that time, his day-to-day philosophy has not changed: “Treat everyone the way you would want your family to be treated. That one time you interact with someone might be their only encounter with law enforcement.”
He noted that he learned that foundation from a veteran officer, Robert D’Auria, “who was a tremendous mentor to me. He was really great with people. I had so much respect for him; he had a great influence on my career.” Towle said he shares that outlook when new members join the department. “I hope I am passing that same respect and professionalism on to these younger guys.”
Pandemic or not, Towle declared, “I love my job and would do it all again. And I feel so fortunate to be able to raise my family here.”
Martin was 9 or 10 years old when he joined some other Bedford Gardens neighborhood kids for a summer movie night, sponsored by a young Bedford police officer, Jeff Wardwell. “I thought that was really cool,” said Martin, who also had two uncles working as Woburn police officers. The family ties, and the movie nights, began a thought process that culminated in February 2003 when the 1996 BHS graduate joined the Department.
“I had thought about the State Police or some other department, but I wanted to stick to my roots and stay where I grew up, where I know the people,” he said.
The town has changed a lot over 17 years, “but there are still many people I know who grew up here,” Martin said. “Sometimes I meet kids of people I went to school with, and that makes it easier to form relationships. Bedford is a great town to work in…. The Police Department is approachable. If you don’t know an officer, you know somebody who does.”
Martin has worked as a detective for the past four years, but he said that hasn’t changed his approach. “We still come to work every day and try to help. Every member of the department is a professional. We all try to do the best we can. Anybody in this field long enough has a level of comfort as we get to know the stakeholders – the business owners, the citizens.”
Martin, who has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, has served as president of the patrolmen’s union for more than nine years. “I like being involved,” he said.
“Police officers have to be held accountable for everything that we do, and then some,” Martin observed. Like his colleagues, he has accounts of helping individuals beyond the basics
Ricci related that “when I was in high school I decided this is what I wanted to study, I took classes in law, forensics and government, and got exposed to all these different fields.” He noted that his football coaches at John Glenn Middle School were Patrolman Michael Reid and Sgt. Wardwell, “They gave us a different exposure to the Police Department – a community feel,” he recalled. There was also a close family friend who was a Watertown police officer.
Ricci solidified his career direction by earning a degree in criminal justice from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
For a police officer, Ricci reflected, “Bedford is unique because it is a smaller tight-knit community. When I go places, I know the people and can talk on a personal level.”
It didn’t take Ricci long to apply the ethos of helpfulness that Chief Robert Bongiorno says is part of departmental culture. “A couple months ago I started a conversation with a guy near Stop & Shop, and he ended up telling me about his substance abuse problem. We talked for an hour; he was having a really had time. I got him into a sober house and set him up with some other resources. I still keep in touch.”
Ricci, who still resides with his family in the house where he grew up, has worked evenings and overnights since beginning his Bedford career. “It has been a total change of pace, and has given me a new experience,” he said.
Lt. Jones credited one of his BHS teachers with sparking his interest in a career in law enforcement. Jake Sullivan, he said, “talked about the law, and it was really interesting. He even brought in a couple of former inmates who told about their trouble with the law.”
Jones, a member of the Class of 1981, reflected on his years at BHS. “We didn’t have the kind of police-student relations that we have today.” A police officer wasn’t in the school, although he remembers Officer Ed Ricker accompanying the football team to pre-season camp in New Hampshire.
A co-op student at Northeastern University, Jones received his undergraduate degree in criminal justice in 1986 and a year later was hired in Bedford. His seniority today is second only to Sgt. Mark Barbieri.
Jones was promoted to sergeant in 2001 and two years later was named to his current position of lieutenant detective, in charge of detectives, prosecution, and jail diversion.
“It’s a great community to work for – the town always has supported the police,” Jones said. “We have a good department, really committed to the community. You feel like you make a difference, and that’s what drives me.”
“Criminal justice reform right now is looking at a lot of things, Jones acknowledged, “but we can and do make a difference in people’s lives.” He particularly mentioned the services that take place behind the scenes.
“When people are in crisis, they pick up the phone and call us. Our officers are being asked to do a lot more than what they thought. That demonstrates their commitment.” And that’s not new – he remembered a professor at Northeastern telling the class that “80 to 90 percent of policing is service-related. That didn’t fit my perception of what I saw on TV.”
As the department’s longest-serving African-American officer, Jones said “I have had various conversations with people in the Black community and we have shared experiences. My message in policing has been, Black and white, we have to listen to our communities, listen to their stories.”
“For the most part, the community has been welcoming,” Jones said. “That’s why my parents moved here.” A generation ago, his mother was one of the drivers of a group called Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford. “They helped support me with a college scholarship,” he said.
The eight full-time dispatchers, supervised jointly by the Police and Fire chiefs and located at the police station, are “the unsung heroes,” Chief Bongiorno said. “They are the lifeline between the community and public safety personnel.”
One of them, Justin Brooks, said he had a lot of role models growing up, beginning with his cousins Michael and Jeff Sullivan, members of the State Police. “I knew officers French and Devine and Waite – they were always around,” he said. “It’s something I wanted early on.”
The 2010 BHS graduate attended MCC, completed the Northeast Regional Police Institute entry-level police academy, and became a dispatcher in January 2015. He still aspires to be a police officer. “I hope to keep moving forward in my law-enforcement journey.”
Meanwhile, he is literally at the command center for police, fire, and rescue, working a variety of shifts. And he loves the work. “It’s different every day. You are very much attached to the community,” he explained. On a typical weekday, upwards of three dozen people could show up at the counter. “On a Sunday in the summer it’s as quiet as a ghost town.”
People visit the dispatcher for a variety of reasons – to access the Historical Society, to use the restrooms, to pose general questions, or seek directions. “People call all the time – they need to know something, whom to call for something, and they ask us first.”
There aren’t a lot of emergencies. “We’re just a small town; we don’t have a hundred 9-1-1 calls a day,” Brooks observed. And even some of those aren’t actual emergencies, he acknowledged.