‘Mission Creep’

Two news stories in yesterday’s and today’s editions of the Berkshire Eagle show that police reform appears to be on the march in Massachusetts.

* Today, the new statehouse reporter, Danny Jin, reports, HERE,* on a proposed law that would “strengthen use-of-force limits, end qualified immunity and reinvest correctional spending toward job creation. It is headed “State Senate bill would reform policing in Massachusetts.”*

* In yesterday’s story, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn “questioned the foundations of current policing, saying in the Q&A portion of a Zoom meeting, “The system is broken, and it’s been getting more and more broken for my entire career.” The story is headed “Chief targets barriers on road to reform: Head of Pittsfield police highlights ‘broken’ system, ‘mission creep.’”*

Both stories open up large areas of discussion about what’s going on these days and has been for years and years—but can’t be reported properly in our newspapers and on TV and radio news programs. Both pertain to local police forces smaller than this city’s and to metropolitan police forces.

Here are two quotes from Chief Wynn:

“On Sept. 11, 2001, overnight, we became homeland security specialists and counterterrorism people. And then it stayed that way until the explosion in fenantyl, and then we all became anti-drug, anti-drug-smuggling experts. Every time there’s an incident of national significance, we get retained and reoriented.”

”I’m not familiar with another profession that’s experienced so much mission creep in the last 25 years, to the point where even our officers don’t know what’s expected of them.”

Police violence against blacks is the now-international topic in the spotlight (along with broadly systemic racism), rivaling the coronavirus pandemic, since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of four white Minneapolis police officers on May 25. It was not a big part of yesterday’s Eagle story. In part, this was because police violence against blacks has been less evident in Pittsfield than elsewhere. This, in turn, may be because Wynn, a Pittsfield native and Williams College graduate, is black himself. It may also be because the city boasts an active NAACP chapter, which which has good relations with city government

To hear Wynn tell it, to some extent police departments are handcuffed by expectations that they tackle the local results of the international drug trade and illegal immigration on top of their more traditional responsibilities. This is particularly galling and unfair when the news media don’t delve into the roots of much of international drug trafficking and terrorist networks.

Seldom do the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, come up in such a discussion, but in practically the wink of an eye the Department of Homeland Security was up and running with the quick enactment on Oct. 26, 2001, of the USA PATRIOT Act, spurred by the “9/11” attacks and the anthrax attacks that began a week later.

Tomorrow or the next day this blog will explore some of the context of the above.

— Mark Channing Miller

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* Eagle stories can be accessed online only by people who have paid subscriptions.

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