Don’t try to tell the Island police chiefs that winter is the slow time on the Vineyard.
Sure, summers are a rush. But come winter, there are budgets to prepare and training to complete. There are new computer programs to consider and the matter of an on-Island firing range to puzzle over. And then of course, there is the matter of policing the year-round community.
The roles may change but the work continues, Island law enforcement said Wednesday during the monthly meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Chiefs of Police Association, which was hosted this month by the Gazette.
The Island police chiefs began meeting together in the 1970s under the guidance of the late Sheriff Christopher S. (Huck) Look Jr. and the late Oak Bluffs police chief Peter Williamson. Today the monthly meetings are a time to get the six Island police chiefs, the sheriff, state police and Coast Guard leaders together in one room. Like any other board, they approve meeting minutes and talk about bills and budgets, but they also talk about collective issues: training programs and equipment, public safety and information technology.
“The information technology portion . . . is huge,” said Sheriff Michael McCormack, the president of the association who runs the meetings. “How do we communicate? We’re preparing for the summer, and we’re preparing for the big events.”
Working together and using new technology are key components of Island policing.
Edgartown police chief Antone Bettencourt asked whether Island police officers could receive further training on a machine that helps analyze cell phone information.
“We seem to be using it quite a bit,” Chief Bettencourt said, adding that tools like cell phone readers are increasingly important. “In today’s day and age . . . that’s where crimes are solved,” he said.
Oak Bluffs chief Erik Blake offered a legislative update on a bill moving through the state house that would limit the amount of data police can take from license plate readers, and how long they can store the data.
“It’s going to be a give and take,” Chief Blake said, noting privacy concerns paired with valuable information that is important to public safety.
Island police officers are also getting training about high-risk domestic violence situations, working with Cape and Islands assistant district attorney Lisa Edmonds and the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services Connect to End Violence program.
The goal is to protect the victim as much as possible, Sheriff McCormack said, while making sure to hold the perpetrator responsible.
The group is also working on developing a firing range for Island police on land near the airport.
This week, the chiefs were joined by Edgartown deputy fire chief Alex Schaeffer and Tisbury fire chief John Schilling for a discussion about new software that will make information easily shared among police, fire and EMS personnel.
The fire departments are staffed by volunteers, “most of which now no longer grew up in our community,” Chief Schilling said. “Historically locals knew how to get from one place to another . . . that component is missing in our response time.”
Personnel increasingly rely on information from dispatchers being repeated over radios, police said.
Robert Verdone, a Tisbury fire department volunteer and member of the Coast Guard, presented a program that would send information like directions and who is responding to a call to multiple members of the police, fire and EMS at once. The information could be sent to officers’ cell phones, and would not increase radio traffic.
The cost was estimated at about $7,000, which would be divided among the departments.
“This will be a positive impact on dispatch,” Sheriff McCormack said, adding that directions to a call won’t have to be repeated over and over.
“How do the chiefs feel?” he asked. After some questions, the group was in favor and voted unanimously to pursue the technology.
At the end of the meeting, the chiefs reflected on how their jobs change in the so-called slower season.
“I’ve always said that I like the summer better, because there are more people and there’s more going on,” said West Tisbury police chief Daniel Rossi. “You’re dealing with people from all walks of life.”
He said West Tisbury is now home to a large number of winter rentals. “[In the winter] you end up dealing with the same people over and over again, which to me is a lot harder than [summer], when you meet somebody one day, you deal with their problems and you’re done.” He added:
“People say what is there to do on Martha’s Vineyard in the winter time? I think it’s harder to police here in the winter than it is in the summer.”
This will be state police Sgt. Joseph Pimental’s first winter on the Island and he described the off-season work as different from the mainland. “You end up being much more proactive than reactive,” he said. “In the summertime you end up being reactive because it’s so busy, but in the winter there is more time to go out and stop more vehicles and try to be more proactive to issues on the Island.”
Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi exchanged some friendly jibes with Sergeant Pimental about who took the lead when the president visits in the summer.
“The state police is the lead agency when President Barack Obama arrives for a visit, Sgt. Pimental said. “As well as Chilmark,” he added, after glancing at Chief Cioffi who was seated next to him.
“We’re always planning for the actual visit of the president, not just driving him around,” Chief Cioffi returned in friendly fashion.
As for off-season law enforcement on the Vineyard, Chief Cioffi said: “I would just say there’s two different types of policing. You’re a cop in the summertime, everyone gets treated the same. In the wintertime you’re more of a local [leader] who’s responsible for just kind of keeping people happy and at bay.” He continued:
“Small communities, you know everybody. It makes it a little harder in the wintertime to take more a of a police stance. You do more of a community stance.”
Chief Bettencourt said he spends more time in the office in winter.
He said that with training, planning, budgets and meeting with schools and the youth task force, “I find myself inside and doing a lot of preparing, and in the summertime I get to come out and see what’s actually going on. You’d think it would be backwards but that’s the way it is for me as a chief.”
Tisbury chief Dan Hanavan agreed. “In the summer I like to be more out and about, more planning in the winter,” he said.
Coast Guard senior Chief Jason Olsen who mans station Menemsha said he sees differences too. “Our difference for us is we deal with a lot more commercial fishermen in the winter . . . . in the summer it’s more recreational fishing,” he said. The Coast Guard also works with other agencies — preparing for presidential visits, training the Edgartown police with a new boat, and providing support when police have to get evidence off the Island or the postmaster general has an urgent delivery.
Aquinnah police chief Randhi Belain said that most people think nothing happens in the smallest town on the Island. “Well it may not, but we still have to be prepared like everybody else is,” he said. “This time of year a lot of the planning goes on.” He said the department just did a multi-casualty drill with the tribe and EMS.
He also noted that for the first time this summer, the departments really worked together. On the Fourth of July, officers came from every town to help at the Edgartown parade and fireworks and multiple towns assisted at the Oak Bluffs fireworks and the Tisbury street fair.
“Randhi was checking bags in Oak Bluffs,” Chief Blake said.
Chief Blake’s new role as president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association will take up a lot of his time this year. As far as his regular duties, he said the busiest time of the year is from before town meetings through June, when budgets are due and there are meetings with town boards and officials. He also has regular meetings about the tactical response team, which is “not only valuable but takes a lot of our time and a lot of our resources.”
And the busy summer season gets longer every year. “The shoulder season used to be maybe a couple of weeks after Labor Day,” he said. “People are here now.”
Even now, he said, the department sees a steady stream of arrests, accidents and calls. “But you also start engaging in, whether you do it officially or informally, some strategic planning. You start thinking about, okay, what can we afford to do and what do we want to do?” This year, he said, the police department wants to start a citizen police academy.
“As a police officer . . . I always think that it’s going to slow down and it never, never does,” he said. “Law enforcement is only one tool in the tool bag of being a police officer. If you don’t grasp that mentality on Martha’s Vineyard you’re not going to survive.”