Presence of state police in Berkshire County grows, as officials cite concerns of ‘outside agitators’

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Increased numbers of state police troopers have been stationed in Berkshire County in the past few days as part of a statewide plan responding to what state law enforcement officials say are reports of ‘outside agitators’ moving into rural communities. This plan comes in light of protests in response to a police officer’s killing of George Floyd while in custody, including a peaceful demonstration in Pittsfield attended by hundreds on Saturday. 

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) notified Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 of the plan on Tuesday. “I was informed yesterday by my contact at Mass Emergency Management and then subsequently through other public safety channels similarly, that they were looking at this information and intelligence that there may be outside groups looking to further agitate within the county,” Hoch said. 

According to Hoch, there are no plans to station state police in Williamstown specifically. “[The MEMA report] was sort of a reminder that the additional resources are available and that they may be more available than normal if needed,” he said.  

Under normal circumstances, “there’s just not a lot of state police presence available in Western Mass. just based on population,” Hoch added. “They put their resources where the people are.”

Any decision to ask for state police to be deployed to Williamstown would ultimately be made by Kyle Johnson, the chief of the Williamstown Police Department (WPD), Hoch said. 

Hoch has been in communication with Johnson about the presence of state police. “We’re all aware of the circling information that’s out there that has come through our sources,” Hoch said. “We have no particular specific Williamstown knowledge that would cause us to take an advance position to bring people in.” 

“Our concern is not undermining local protests as they always happen,” Hoch said. “But actually our obligation [is] to protect those people who are protesting from unnecessary and inappropriate and potentially unsafe outside influences, wherever they land on the political spectrum.”

In an email to the Record, Johnson emphasized that the WPD regularly works with the state police. “The State Police are available to us everyday. We regularly work with them on certain investigations as well as with school safety,” Johnson said. “They also perform regular patrols in and around Williamstown, and we welcome any of their assistance.”

“We will call [the state police] as needed,” Johnson said, in reference to the recently increased availability of state police in the area. 

Recent protests in the Berkshires, including a protest on Sunday in North Adams and the Saturday protest in Pittsfield, have been peaceful and have not seen any use of force by police, according to the Berkshire Eagle.

Details of the statewide plan were previously described in an email written by Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer to city councilors, leaked by WAMC on Tuesday.  

“You may see a greater presence of State Police in Pittsfield and Berkshire County,” wrote Tyer in the email. “There is a large contingent of State Troopers currently situated at the Second Street Emergency Operations Center.” 

The increased presence of state police at the Second Street Emergency Operations Center was confirmed by Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn ’93 in an interview with WAMC. 

In the leaked email, Tyer cited “Antifa interference” in peaceful protests as a reason state police would be increasing their presence in the Berkshires. 

Antifa, a movement of loosely affiliated anti-fascist activists, does not have an organized membership or any leadership structure. It has been recently blamed by President Trump, without any evidence, for the looting and rioting seen in some recent protests. 

After hearing of the email sent by Tyer and the increased presence of state police in Pittsfield, Caroline Fairweather ’20, who lives in Pittsfield, organized an email campaign asking Tyer to remove the supplementary state troopers from the city and objecting to Tyer’s reference to Antifa.

“I reacted really viscerally to the narrative [in the email from Mayor Tyer] that there is one group of radical protesters that don’t stand for the majority of civil unrest going on in Pittsfield and throughout the nation,” Fairweather said. “And that, to me, seems like a disingenuous claim to make. And one that takes attention away from how widespread these protests are.”

Fairweather had previously attended the Saturday protest against police brutality organized by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP in Pittsfield. “That was a really, really positive and well-run protest,” she said. 

“Because of that, because of what I learned from being at that protest, my reaction to this memo from Mayor Tyer confused me because just what the email was calling for, but also the specific language about Antifa,” she added. “It’s been revealed, you know … that there has been no confirmation of Antifa, specifically, [agitating protests].”

Fairweather said she plans on attending a NAACP-organized protest in Great Barrington on Saturday. “It’ll be really interesting to see if and how these protests will be different given the recent news,” she said. 

Hoch said that there is a protest planned in Williamstown on Friday against police brutality and in solidarity with victims of police violence. The protest will be held at Field Park, and is being organized by Greylock Together, according to a Facebook page announcing the event.