Tisbury police chief Daniel Hanavan is bracing for the thousands of cars and visitors that will disembark daily from ferries into Vineyard Haven streets this summer. Edgartown police chief Antone Bettencourt is taking special note of the rise of underage alcohol purchases, while his Oak Bluffs counterpart, Erik Blake, is getting ready for summer bar closings in his town full of bustling night spots.
Up-Island, the March homicide that rocked West Tisbury is still on the mind of chief Dan Rossi. Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi, who was on hand to provide backup to his neighboring department in West Tisbury that day, applauds the creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response Team. And Aquinnah chief Randhi Belain is a little worried about getting through the summer with just three people in the department — including him.
These are the Island police chiefs, the law enforcement leaders who preside over six small communities, each with its own policing needs. But the chiefs say each town is far from alone when it comes to law enforcement.
“Being in law enforcement for more than 20 years, I’ve never seen the Island departments work so well together,” Chief Rossi said. On the Vineyard he said there is no “it’s a West Tisbury case, it’s an Edgartown case . . . we work together, and that’s really wonderful to see. And it’s not about recognition, as to who did this and who did that. It’s the fact that we’re all willing to work together, in the whole community, as the Island, and not just as a specific town.”
In a conversation at the Gazette on Friday, the six police chiefs talked about the nature of Island policing heading into the busy summer season, and shared some good-natured ribbing as they talked about their jobs. If there is one thing that stands out about Island policing, the chiefs said, it’s a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie. This extends from a shared computer program that allows the departments to swap information to sharing personnel.
The chiefs, joined by the sheriff and the state police, meet for regular monthly meetings. Their good working relationship extends to the state police, they said, and has produced tangible results.
And if that’s not convincing enough, consider last Fourth of July when four Island police chiefs were on lower Main street in Edgartown at bar closing time. “You have four chiefs standing out in front of the waterfront,” Chief Rossi said. “For bar closing time,” Chief Bettencourt finished. “You might see it again.”
The shared computer system, now user-friendly after a period of technical glitches, can be a big help in investigations, Chief Cioffi said. “I’d like to know that if I’m having [breaking and enterings], and West Tisbury is, and Edgartown is, maybe they’re all connected, and I’d like to be able to read their reports and look at their evidence that they’ve been able to gather,” he said. “[In the past] we weren’t able to do that.”
People move around a lot on the Vineyard, making information sharing all the more important, the chiefs noted.“If there’s a domestic situation in Edgartown and then the people move to Chilmark for their winter rental or their summer rental, it’d be nice to be able to look back and see what their situation was,” Mr. Cioffi said.
While Mr. Blake had a light-hearted bone to pick with Mr. Bettencourt for luring away his K-9 unit — police officer Jeffrey Trudel and Buster, a drug-sniffing, people-finding dog, recently moved from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown — he said in fact Buster was a good example of how the Island can work together.
“I didn’t feel it as a huge sense of loss, that I lost that program,” Chief Blake said, turning serious. “I didn’t lose that resource. I can still pick up the phone and say, ‘Get me the dog.’ ”
The departments also recently worked together with the state police and the sheriff’s office to create the tactical response team, highly-trained officers who can respond to high-pressure situations. “It’s just one big effort to have this team, and we’ve needed it,” Mr. Blake said.
Arrival time for an off-Island team could be four to six hours or more, the chiefs said, so the Island needed to be self-sufficient.
“I mean really it’s the mobile command unit, you’ve got negotiations, negotiators, you could be looking for somebody, searching for somebody, a despondent person,” Mr. Cioffi said.
Case in point, some said, was the recent shooting in West Tisbury, in which a man shot his estranged wife, who shot him back in what was later ruled homicide in self defense. Mr. Blake praised the work of the tactical team, which coincidentally had done a training drill that strongly mirrored the incident a week before it happened.
“For me, knowing personally that if I get a call at 11 at night for that kind of incident . . . I’ve got this beautiful tool in my tool bag to call them out and help us,” he said.
Chief Rossi agreed. “It was amazing, the response from law enforcement on this Island that came to the aid of West Tisbury,” he said. “And that’s a good insurance policy . . . sharing resources across the Island is a great thing.”
Chief Cioffi had a similar thought. “We’re willing to help each other out, and not say, well that’s that town’s problem, I don’t care,” he said. “Because each crime that happens in every town affects the whole Island, and we all live here; one crime in this town is widespread across the Island.”
With the start of the summer season, when the population balloons, the towns face different challenges. Chief Belain said personnel concerns are at the top of his list. “I, too, just lost an officer to Edgartown, I’m in the process of filling that position,” he said, adding that it will be himself and two other full-time officers this summer. But here again, he knows that help is just one small town away.
“Obviously Chilmark borders me. I know that if I make the call for help I’ll get it and it’s not going to be an issue, so it’s reassuring to me,” he said.
As for the coming summer in Edgartown, Mr. Bettencourt said he is alert to the fact that underage drinking appears to be on the rise compared to last summer, with more teenagers trying to buy liquor at bars and alcohol stores. “I think that’s something important that we need to look at right away,” the chief said. He and Mr. Blake both praised improved technology that they said makes it easier to detect fake identification cards.
Mr. Hanavan said he’s training new officers in preparation for the busy Fourth of July weekend, especially for traffic control around the Steamship Authority. “We’re lucky that we don’t have the bars that Oak Bluffs has, so we don’t have to really deal with that . . . beer and wine didn’t affect us for the restaurants, and my selectmen have been supportive and let me hire a special officer, so that helped fill a couple of positions we had,” the chief said.
As far as more general trends, all the chiefs agreed that prescription drug abuse is on the rise. “I think that’s the biggest trend across the Island,” Chief Rossi said.
“Domestic violence, sexual assaults, and child issues — it’s more prevalent now than it was 10 years ago,” Chief Cioffi chimed in. “You know it’s happening, I think that it always happened, I think that people are becoming more receptive to reporting it, or talking to us.” He praised the Connect to End Violence program of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services for its excellent work.
The Chilmark chief also remarked that small town police departments adapt to meet community needs and are absent the heavy hierarchy more typical of big city police departments.
“I don’t view myself as chief, but I view myself as a unit supervisor and the unit depends upon what happens,” Chief Cioffi said. “If it’s B & Es, well we’re a detectives unit, and everybody in the department is a detective. So we all have to pitch in. When we have a sex assault, the whole department becomes a sex assault unit. We’re like chameleons — we have to change to match whatever happens in our town.”
All the chiefs had extra words of praise for the state police and Sheriff Michael McCormack, who serves as president of the Island law enforcement council.
Chief Rossi said the state police are integral to the Island law enforcement effort. “I think there’s a different philosophy on the Island, compared to off-Island,” he said. “The relationship between the local police and the state police — it’s just another tool on everybody’s belt.”
Chief Bettencourt agreed. “We look for resources when we don’t have them. It’s not so much, this is too much for us, this is a state police case, as, hey, we need expertise — maybe it’s a car accident and it’s the reconstruction team, and we need them. It’s more like asking for resources.”
He concluded: “We’re all working together to get through the summer, we’re sharing resources. I don’t think we’re worried about anything this summer.”
And come Fourth of July in Edgartown, the thousands of revelers that crowd the town for the parade and fireworks on the national holiday might see a visual display of Island police cooperation. Mr. Bettencourt put out a call for extra officers, and the response was positive.
“Everybody’s sending me police officers,” Mr. Bettencourt said. “You’ll see a cop from every town working down here.”