WPD Chief Parker… on the Record

Editor in Chief Ben Katz conducted this interview of Arthur Parker, the interim chief of the Williamstown Police Department, yesterday. Excerpts appear below.

What made you decide to become a police officer and how did you find yourself here in Williamstown?

Part of that might be best described as some very, very good community relations, which now we would call part of community policing. I grew up in the city of Everett, which has about 43,000 people in an area that is about two miles by two miles, so there were a lot of folks there. It’s a city just north of Boston.

During my teenage years, there seemed to be a pretty positive influence from a local police officer who worked the foot beat in the square. He was kind of a guy that you could speak to if you had a situation going on, a guy who would say “hello” to you and ask things like, “hey guys, how are you doing,” and it seemed like he had some genuine concerns that obviously had quite an impression on me as an adolescent.

I can remember being in high school. I went to a parochial school, and I remember the nuns on several occasions taking the blue book, which is a book that you need to study to be proficient at taking the civil service test, and I remember that they got at least one or two of those from me when I supposed to be probably paying attention to something like geometry or what-have-you. Then, the year that I was old enough to take the test, the total structure was changed, so it didn’t do me any good anyway, but I basically became interested in looking at police service as an occupation as a teenager.

Upon graduating from high school, I didn’t quite think that college was for me and I was fortunate in my life to be able to be able to spend summers on Cape Cod. I remember the year after I graduated I stayed on the Cape that next September and decided that I wanted to live there during the winter too.

However, then even more so than now, jobs really evaporate around Labor Day, so I ended up back in Boston. I got a full-time job, but I decided to go one night a week to Northeastern to study criminal justice, and a year later I entered the Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, where I stayed for two years and earned an associates degree in law enforcement.

About the time that I was graduating from Bunker Hill I was fortunate enough to obtain a position to work in Provincetown, which is located on the very tip of Cape Cod. Provincetown is a diverse community, and a great place to get my baptism in law enforcement.

In a sense, it was like New York City on a very, very small scale. The town seemed to have a little bit of everything, so it was a good place for me to start out in police work.

After working there as a provisional officer, in January of 1979 I obtained a full-time position in the town of Welfleet, which is just about 17 miles back up the Cape. I went to the police academy in Barnstable, Barnstable County Police Academy, which at the time was 12 weeks long and was clearly twelve weeks of hell. However, to reflect back on such a period basically allows you the foundation to build a solid career in law enforcement.

I served a few years as a patrol officer in Welfleet and eventually I was elevated to the rank of detective. Through my career I have served a number of assignments, including one where I was a charter member of the first multi-jurisdictional drug task force in the country that allowed local officers to participate. The Unit was established on June 1, 1982 and to this day is still in existence.

It was modeled after Vice President Bush’s drug task force put together in 1980 and 1981 down off the southern coast of Florida to start a blockade to prevent ships coming from South America that were importing tremendous amounts of marijuana into Southern Florida. As a result of this blockade it didn’t take the bad guys long to figure out that if they went a little bit further north and then came in that they could really pilfer the northeast part of the country with illegal importation of marijuana.

The task force, known as the Cape Cod Drug Task Force, was established and I was, as I said, a charter member. I was able to initiate and work on cases to the point where I had to be sworn as an assistant deputy marshal, a U.S. federal marshal position, so that I could be privy to grand jury minutes and also to allow to the federal government to pay the overtime. The case ended with the arrest, when everything was said and done, of 32 defendants for the importation of 262,000 lbs. of marijuana.

As far as my academic history, after working for a few years in Welfleet I went on to get my bachelor’s degree at University of Massachusetts, Boston and the following year I obtained a masters in criminal justice from Anna Maria College. This past December, I finished the requirement for a masters in business administration with a concentration in public administration, and I’ll be graduating on May 20 of this year.

So you are a student these days, too?

Yeah, I’d like to think that during my meeting with the house presidents two weeks ago I was able to appreciate the fact that, although I might not have agreed with some of the things that were said, that I can clearly understand their concerns because I have never been too far from academia despite the fact that I have been involved in police work.

Prior to coming up here, one of my regrets, if I have any real regrets in taking the interim position here in Williamstown, is that I was about to embark on instituting a four-year criminal justice program on Cape Cod for Newbury College, which is a college located in Brookline just outside of Boston.

Because of the timing involved to come up I wasn’t able to bring that to fruition so that’s a little bit of an unfinished chapter, if you would, in my career. Clearly, I am looking forward to an opportunity where at some point I would be able to establish such a program or enter an established program to be able to teach in the criminal justice field. I really look forward to that as well as the possibility of being offered the full-time position here as the town’s permanent police chief.

As an outsider coming in to Williamstown, are there any first impressions that you have about the town and the college?

My initial entry into the department and perhaps even the town as well was rather unique. I think that there was a certain amount of apprehension and fear by the department members because here is this guy from back east who has a couple of master’s degrees and he’s coming into a department as an outsider.

However, in the department that I left to come up here ten years ago the town of Welfleet hired a Lieutenant from the New York City police department to be its chief. I knew what the fear and apprehension of these officers was like because I had been in a similar position ten years before. For me to have that knowledge to come in and be able to lead the department in the last few months and be sensitive to their feelings, I think that made a pretty good transition.

It’s an interesting assignment, the laws are the same, but laws, as far as the police chief is concerned, are only a small portion of the job. Community culture is an issue. There’s a thing that is known as town-gown here that is not unique to Williamstown but that might be unique to towns and cities that don’t have a university environment.

However, on Cape Cod we have a similar situation, only it’s with the local tourists instead of students. However, at least on Cape Cod, the locals are starting to realize that a lot of the industry that allows Cape Cod to be what it is is driven by the tourist industry.

I don’t know what Williamstown would be like without the college environment, and it’s really not for me to say. However, I’m not naïve as far as realizing that Williams College is clearly a big part of the town. One of the things that I found interesting when I came here is that a number of people in various circles mentioned to me how Williams College was quite an influence in the town.

It only makes sense to me that I should try to partner with that influence so that it can help the department get to where we want to go rather than be seen as an adversary. I think that two groups pulling in the same direction is definitely the way to go here.

At the Housing Committee meeting, you spoke a lot about community policing. Could you explain this philosophy a little more?

Community policing is a phrase that really started to become popular maybe 12 or 14 years ago. Probably if you can think back on your childhood you probably watched some of the very first community policing. It was Andy [Griffith]. There was an officer who knew everything that was going on in the town. He was not only seen as a law enforcement officer as you would, but he was also seen as a resource that people on the town could go to when there was an issue or a concern or a problem. Although he might not have been able to provide the actual solution, he could point people in the right direction.

I think that this is what I would like to see happen with the officers here in Williamstown. As I mentioned at the Housing Committee meeting, probably only five percent of our job entails law enforcement in the strictest sense of the word. If we spend 95 percent of our time not doing law enforcement, that means that we should do things that enhance our value to the community, that allow us to be a resource for the people the community to tap if they have a concern.

Community policing is not just about running programs. It’s a philosophy; it’s a mindset. It’s the type of mindset that takes a long time to implement this type of a true philosophy. It’s a change in culture and culture change is slow.

Clearly, to be able to fully implement community policing is a challenge, one that I am up to the task for and I think that the personnel who are here are clearly up to task as well. It really requires three things: personnel, resources and it clearly requires time.

On a more specific program, Cops in Shops – what exactly was the motivation behind this program? As I understand the department had to seek out funding for this.

Actually, believe it or not, we were requested by the state to seek funding by the governor’s highway safety bureau. They sent a letter to municipalities that had colleges or universities within their jurisdiction with enrollments of over 1000 people.

Based on everything that I was able to learn prior to coming here, one of the significant issues that seems to come to the fore is the amount of underage drinking and the health consequences that result from underage drinking in the town with the college as well as with those not associated with the college.

When presented with those issues and that historical data, and given the timing of the request for a proposal from the governor’s highway safety bureau, it seemed like a good match. It seemed like a good opportunity with graduation coming not only for Williams, but also for Mt. Greylock High School.

Not being naïve to the fact the despite the law saying that under 21 drinking is illegal, I realize that there is a significant amount of it that occurs. The police department and its resources can only do so much as far as the law enforcement, but clearly part of that enforcement is education.

If we are able to gain some compliance through education, perhaps even some compliance through the fear of apprehension, because of the publicity that is involved with the Cops in Shops program then we have successfully completed our mission.

For those that are apprehended as part of the Cops in Shops operation, shame on them. Those who won’t learn under the circumstances that what we are trying to prevent is violations of law including, but not limited to, the situation that took place with the prefrosh a few weeks ago.

This program is in effect?

It is, right.

Would you say that there is pressure from the state to crack down?

Absolutely not. It was a request that they made should we be interested and I was under no mandate to apply for the money.

Was there pressure from local residents to crack down?

Pressure might be too strong of a word. I think that from a number of circles have heard concern over underage drinking mentioned to both myself and the officers in the department.

Those circles include town residents as well as people in positions at the college as well as the officers themselves. As I mentioned at Housing Committee, I’ve had the unfortunate occurrence to have to go to people’s houses and tell them that their children are dead because of the result of bad decisions with alcohol. That’s something which I really hope never to have to do again.

To do nothing and not have seized the opportunity to do this I think that we would have been remiss, but there is no pressure to do this.

Social life being what it is up in the Northern Berkshires, perhaps there are other ways that it can be enhanced without it revolving around alcohol. That’s not something for students to simply address, that’s for everybody as a community to address.

At the Housing Committee meeting you raised the issue of police accompanying College Security officers in dorm sweeps. Could you comment a little more on that?

This is something that is still under discussion and in a formative stage. It is important to know that this proposal came at the request of College Security officials. I understand that this issue has become a major issue on campus, but I really don’t see this requiring the amount of concern being generated.

Students are concerned and they shouldn’t be. The concern is far greater than the effort that would be put into this if it is implemented at all.

Besides underage drinking, are there any other issues involving Williams that you are concerned about as a police chief?

I worry that there are a lot of really bright students here who might make one mistake and it could cost them later in life. For example, we have federal officials in the office a few times a month doing background checks on former students for employment purposes or to offer contracts. A simple mistake now could end up being very costly later on in life.

As another thing, I was going through Main Street, stopped to let somebody go through the crosswalk and they smiled and waved. I think the exception should be when you stop at a crosswalk and somebody doesn’t wave.

It is almost a highlight when somebody smiles or says thanks. I think this would be a great way to try to break down some of that town [animosity] is to basically appeal to the students to be courteous.

If they see a vehicle coming, maybe wait and let the vehicle pass, but more importantly give them a smile or wave. That’s going to go a long way. That should be the norm, not the exception. It only takes but a second, but it can go miles to address some of the town and gown issues.