WESTFIELD – The Westfield City Council Finance sub-committee April 13 reviewed a request from the Westfield Police Department for purchases of riot gear and a drone, and a $12 million bond to construct the Dry Bridge water treatment facility at Wells 1 and 2.
The requests were recommended by the committee on a vote of 2 to 1 for the riot gear, and 3 to 0 for the drone and water bond.
The original item on the agenda from the police was for $42,411 from free cash for capital equipment. Finance committee member Bridget Matthews-Kane asked to divide the request and to discuss $3,650 for riot gear separately from the drone purchase.
Police Lt. Kevin Bard said the purchase would be 10 sets of shields, helmets and batons, which he called important, due to “the political environment we’re in now.” Bard said at the last riot in the city, which was in 2004 when Boston won the World Series against the Yankees, “we were hung out to dry due to the sparse equipment back then. It showed the true effects of what we couldn’t do.”
“This is just the bare necessities – we really should be having gloves and elbow pads,” Bard added.
Det. Todd Edwards said on June 4 the police were involved in a demonstration where there could have been some issues. He said he went to the National Guard and requested personal protective equipment. “I don’t like the term riot gear. It keeps officers from harm — basic necessities to protect officers from those who would do us harm,” Edwards said. He said they were not able to get the gear, because state permission was required.
Matthews-Kane asked Edwards to elaborate about June 4, a Black Lives Matter demonstration on Park Square Green, which she called “very peaceful.”
“Yes it was, but in some places it wasn’t,” Edwards said.
Bard said he agreed that riot gear was not the right term. He said protecting officers from harm protects the city’s best interests from potential lawsuits or officers being out long term.
Matthews-Kane noted that the invoice is for riot gear. She said according to her research, police wearing intimidating gear tends to escalate situations. She said other techniques, such as lighting and fencing may be used instead.
Bard said police can do a proactive approach, but some situations escalate. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure our officers go home safely to loved ones,” he said.
“I hope this equipment stays in the closet for 50 years. I hope it never happens, but it may happen. [This is] to have the equipment to protect officers simply from a bottle thrown at their head,” Edwards said.
Finance member Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said in terms of deployment, the committee was given a couple of examples, at the college and the gathering on the green. “Will the police department immediately show up in the gear, or is this one where the situation gets assessed and a call goes out,” Sullivan asked.
Bard said at the BLM rally, they were out there behind the scenes, but were allowing peaceful gatherers. “We just sat back in the background and just watched, to make sure that everyone was being safe. The protesters, and the officers, but we didn’t have that equipment. If that turned 180 degrees, we would have been behind the eight ball,” he said.
“Just because we have the equipment, I just want to make sure that the same process, the same protocols [are followed] moving forward,” Sullivan said.
Edwards said the thought process with that type of event, officers would be stationed inside in case they were needed with gear.
Finance chair Ralph Figy called for a vote to recommend the protective equipment, which passed 2 to 1, with Matthews-Kane voting no.
The second request of $38,761 from free cash was for the purchase of a new drone for the department. Edwards, who is one of two licensed drone operators at the WPD, said the Inspire 1 drone used now was purchased in 2017 and is being used with great success to find people lost in the woods, runaways for juveniles and to document scenes.
“It’s starting to get long in the tooth,” Edwards said, adding that there has been an increased technology jump with communication systems and cameras in drones. He said they want to be able to have infrared and visual at one time, and to be able to leave a controller at a command post, have the pilots move around, and electronically relate information to the command post.
Edwards said the drone they have now has open wiring which can short out, and new ones are protected and have two batteries, with extended flying time. They can also carry a heavier payload, and have louder speakers to communicate with people who are lost. “The one we have now is limited,” he said.
Figy asked whether other departments would be able to use this piece of equipment. Edwards cited the DPW, building and fire departments, and said they have offered the services of the drone to inspect buildings and water structures, and in the recent wind storm used the drone to inspect the roof of a building to identify what structures needed to be fixed, rather than send someone onto the roof.
In response to another question, Edwards said there are four licensed operators on the insurance policy, two in the fire department, which uses it primarily for fire scenes.
In response to another question, Edwards said the city plans to sell the Inspire 1 to a neighboring town after the purchase. He said they have a second smaller drone which will be kept. The motion to recommend the purchase passed 3 to 0.
Also passing 3 to 0 was the $12 bond for the Water Department construction of the Dry Bridge Treatment Plant, after the city treasurer, purchasing agent, interim DPW director and systems engineer responded to a dozen written questions from Figy and At-large Councilor Kristen Mello. Figy said the questions and answers will be summarized at the City Council meeting April 15.