Riding shotgun with the WPD

Chris [name changed], an 18 year-old North Adams resident, has been partying in Pownal, VT. Around 1:30 a.m., he decides to leave and, being drunk and without a ride, decides the best way to get home is to walk more than 10 miles home. He makes it all the way to the Cumberland Farms at which point he realizes he needs something to eat.

He stays in the Cumberland Farms until the night manager decides that having a loud, drunk teenager in his store is not particularly good for business and calls the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). All three police officers on duty in Williamstown converge on the store and get Chris outside where they determine that he has nobody who can drive him home.

The officers bring Chris back to the WPD station – ironically located in an old Williams fraternity house – where they let him call his mother and arrange for someone to pick him up at the station; they decide against forcing him to stay at the station overnight in “protective custody” because he’s been cooperative.

Once Chris gets his mother on the line, he becomes slightly less cooperative. Everyone in the room is shocked as he tells her to shut up and listen and that she better get someone over here to pick him up. He hangs up, and it’s then determined that he also has a record that has seen him put into jail on a number of occasions, including once for hitting a police officer. Further, after spending 30 minutes with the WPD and also having walked to Williamstown from Vermont, he still manages to register a blood-alcohol level of .221 – nearly three times the legal limit. The officers go into another room and wait for his neighbor to come pick him up.

Chris’ story would certainly never make it onto “COPS,” and if that were the most excitement a NYPD officer got on a Saturday night it would probably be a sign that the world was ending. It was, however, undoubtedly the highlight of the WPD’s activity last Saturday.

Most Williams students do not hold the WPD in very high esteem – it is seen as a nuisance that spends too much time enforcing drinking laws. Incidents like the controversy over a party at Brooks House earlier in the year, the arrest of two Williams students on Spring St. and controversy over the January Beach Party at the Log have also done little to warm Williams students’ hearts to the WPD.

How much does that perception jive with reality? The Record tried to get a glimpse into the world of the WPD by spending last Saturday night riding along with the Department.

The night began with me agreeing not to sue the Town of Williamstown if I got shot. Having decided that the odds of a stray bullet hitting me were pretty slim and convinced that my bullet-proof vest would protect me in the event that one did, I signed my life away.

I got into my first of two squad cars for the night. This car had a rifle mounted behind the two headrests – it was significantly less intimidating than the gigantic shotgun next to my left arm in the other car. Some of the WPD cars are also equipped with front and rear facing radar detectors; if you speed by WPD cruiser number 32, you are toast.

We began by driving around North Williamstown (everything from Spring St. to North Adams) looking for traffic violations. In two hours, we pulled over two violators – one for going 47 mph in a 30-zone, another for driving the wrong way up Spring St. – and gave both warnings. We also helped two Williams students who had car trouble.

From 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., the bulk of our energy was spent driving around different Williamstown neighborhoods looking for suspicious activity or burglaries. Though nothing was going down this weekend, the officer I rode with has had particular luck coming upon burglaries in progress and has stopped about one a year during his time with the WPD.

At 2 a.m., we made our way down to Spring St. as the Purple Pub was letting out. With Canterbury’s closed, Spring St. was significantly quieter than it might traditionally be. In the hour we were outside the Purple Pub, the WPD talked to three groups of students – the officers were certainly not looking to give students a hard time.

The first encounter came when the doorman at the Purple Pub requested the officer to ask a person without an ID to leave the Pub as the doorman felt he was causing problems. Though the person would initially not leave, he did exit once a second officer arrived. Upon leaving, he was told by the officers that if he got an ID he was welcome to come back and try to get in.

With that the police walked back to their cars, satisfied that the situation had been taken care of. As they walked away, the person wondered loudly whether the reason he was singled out was because of his skin color. To their merit, the officers replied that it was not and walked away – the accusation was ridiculous.

The second encounter came when a student started throwing up all over the street. The WPD officer walked up to him, determined that he was relatively all right and called Security to pick him up and take him back to his dorm.

As we waited for a couple of minutes for Security to arrive, the student decided it would be fun to see how close he could spit to the officer without actually hitting him. Though the officer asked the student to stop, the game continued until Security showed up.

The final encounter came when a person walked out of the Purple Pub carrying a drink. The officer asked him to return the drink to the Purple Pub, as it is against the law to have an open container in Williamstown. The person returned the drink and began to walk off, the encounter apparently over. As the officers turned their back, someone yelled “F— the police,” and the group walked off.

That was it for the night as we ran off to deal with our friend Chris, the North Adams resident. The bottom line, at least last Saturday night, was that the police receive a lot more harassment than they dish out.

When you spend six hours with only four people, you can get a pretty good idea what their agenda is. Every single WPD officer I encountered was a genuinely nice guy. They are obligated to enforce the laws, but they also have no interest in ruining anyone’s Saturday night. Every single one of them would rather stop a burglary, domestic abuse incident and, probably, a speeder than a Williams student partying on a Saturday night.

The hostility many members of the community feel towards the WPD is undoubtedly inevitable for any police department that interacts with college students. The fact that the WPD, as every officer would readily admit, generally deals with less serious infractions than the police departments in Boston or New York probably adds to the tenseness of that relationship.