Making peace with the police

In our small town, the strength of the relationship between students and the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) depends on a mutual trust, but some of the events of the past two weeks have made that difficult to remember. An increase in the perceived presence of the WPD patrolling the streets of Williamstown this weekend ended in a slew of shutdown parties and a general sentiment of suspicion towards the police from students. This rough patch in student-police relations benefits neither group. Both parties must reconsider how the atmosphere took this turn and what they can do to reverse it.

It is difficult for students not to perceive the difference in police behavior since the patrol car tire-slashing outside of 18 Meadow St. last Saturday after midnight. Within two hours of the incident, officers arrested two students for carrying open containers of alcohol on Spring Street and Park Street, respectively.

Regarding this weekend, WPD Police Chief Kyle Johnson said that officers were not especially involved in College-related events, but students and administrators reported a feeling of increased police involvement. Two more students were arrested for carrying open containers and two were cited for liquor law violations. Three establishments frequented by students but not related to the tire incident were the targets of police surveillance: parked patrol cars stayed outside the Spirit Shoppe on Cole Avenue and West’s Wine and Spirits on Spring Street on Saturday night, and Saturday evening staff members at The Herring noticed increased police scrutiny.

Although it is within WPD’s jurisdiction to do so, the decision to handcuff rather than deliver a warning or court summons right after the slashing begs the question of whether these are the kind of town relations we all want to see. While the tire-slashing was absolutely out of line, reacting against students as a whole or against student-friendly Williamstown businesses is antithetical to the positive community relations all of us value.

While the perpetrator of the tire-slashing has not yet been found, it is also important to remember that students at the College should be considered innocent until one is proven guilty – if it was indeed a student. Treating students as if they all were at fault or complicit in the crime is unjust and unnecessary, especially since we can all agree that the slashing was despicable.

That said, students must do what is in their power to speed the investigation. Anyone who has information regarding the tire-slashing should pass it along to Campus Safety and Security, even if anonymously. If the culprit is among us, that person should come forward. In the meantime, we implore Security and those involved in the investigation not to engage in witch-hunting without sufficient evidence.

The match that lit the fire aside, students should not fan the flames. Unnecessary hostility towards WPD will make it precisely that much harder to get them to loosen their hold on the social scene. Despite the perception of WPD’s reactionary behavior, students should take care in the current environment and not be unnecessarily provocative. Laws will not change by sparring with the police, and the community won’t be any better for it, either.

Many thanks are due to Security for defusing situations before they get into territory in which WPD must be involved. While not every student-officer interaction can end in a wink and a nod in the former’s favor – nor should it – Security has, on the whole, gone out of its way to prevent students from getting in situations that could become a criminal snare. Security has to maintain its relationship with both WPD and the student body, and we applaud their continued, responsible discretion when navigating this sometimes difficult mediation.

Nonetheless it is unfortunate that Security’s protective energies must be employed in saving students from the WPD. It is certainly odd and perhaps unsettling that we feel threatened by the main protective force in town. WPD should consider how the perception of its amplified presence is not only creating unnecessary friction with students but also derailing Security officers from their normal beat of being on call to answer real emergencies.

While students reside in Williamstown for the greater part of four years, it is too often the case that permanent Williamstown inhabitants and the WPD do not consider us town residents. Despite the dissonance between the college lifestyle and that of a sleepy, bucolic town in the valley, we all regard this same Billsville as our home. Operating under the assumption that students are keen on debauchery and destruction is to drive a wedge between the College and the Town. Similarly, student abuse of this town, through vandalism or disrespect, only fortifies that unfortunate divide. We all need to examine how to take steps to remove that wedge and remember that this town, as it always has been, is big enough for the both of us.