PHOTOS Downtown beat: Gazette reporter goes on a 'walk along' as Northampton steps up community policing in center

Last modified: Wednesday, July 09, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — A sudden thunderstorm last Wednesday cleared out a bustling downtown sidewalk, driving people inside. One young man took refuge inside a Main Street residential doorway, prompting Northampton Police officer Adam Van Buskirk to stop and chat.

He introduced himself, asked the man how he was, inquired whether trash on the step belonged to him and explained that sitting on a private stoop is not allowed under city ordinance. He encouraged the man to find another place to stay dry.

Later, Van Buskirk reflected on his goals when patrolling on foot. He’s been on this beat for more than five years, and he has multiple objectives: respond to problems reported by shopkeepers, make sure city laws are being followed and, of course, get to know the characters who spend their time downtown. Sometimes those interactions are purely social. Other times, they are all business.

“Do I feel badly for him? Of course,” Van Buskirk said of the man he asked to move along. “But it’s not his doorstop.”

Enforcing the city ordinance requiring doorways on the street are kept clear may seem to some like people being hassled by police, but that doesn’t take into account a business owner’s need to keep the entrance into a shop clear, Van Buskirk said.

“They’ve invested their life into their business,” he said. “It’d be like sitting in front of their door at home. It’s their business, that’s how they provide for their family.”

A new emphasis on community policing from the Northampton Police Department means uniformed foot patrol officers like Van Buskirk will be more visible downtown, a place where an eclectic mix of artists, shoppers, musicians, students, shopkeepers and transients interact. Sometimes those interactions are smooth, and sometimes they have some rough edges.

Police officials hope a stronger presence will help smooth those edges. Northampton Police Capt. Jody Kasper said despite not having a full roster of 52 patrol officers — the department now has 48 — the department has made it a priority to have at least one foot patrol officer downtown at all times.

She said there is either an officer assigned to foot patrol or officers in patrol cars doing regular “park and walks” downtown. Park and walks are when officers in vehicles park their cruisers to patrol on foot.

In addition, Kasper said the department recently took on seven police academy graduates and she expects another five to join its ranks by next spring, bringing the total — even taking retirements into account — to 52.

Kasper said that would mean the department will be the closest it’s been to fully staffed “in about a decade.”

In addition to keeping sidewalks clear, officers on downtown patrols keep an eye on street performers and solicitors who require permits from the city. They must keep their activities on the red-bricked section of sidewalks to keep the rest clear for foot traffic and performers must change locations every two hours, Van Buskirk said.

That’s a concession to business owners who may not appreciate the same performer in the same spot for a long time, he said.

He said downtown artists and performers will often reach out to police to enforce the permitting rules when they suspect there are those who have set up shop without going through proper channels.

Van Buskirk asked one young man who had spontaneously begun playing a guitar on the steps of City Hall after Wednesday’s thundershowers to pack up his gear when he determined the man did not have a performance permit, for example.

For police coverage purposes, Kasper said the city is split into four sections, two of which are in the downtown area. One reaches from Pleasant Street to the Coolidge Bridge, the other from Main Street to North King Street. A third section covers the area from Northampton proper to Williamsburg and the fourth covers the area toward Westhampton, Kasper said.

Van Buskirk has been on the force for about 5½ years. These days he patrols during the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. He likes being on foot, and says getting out of the car is integral to building relationships with community members. “A car creates that barrier,” he said. A cruiser with its flashing lights, caged interior and weapons rack can be intimidating and difficult to approach, he said.

Removing that barrier is important, he said, in an effort to encourage more interaction. A key element of any patrol is getting to know people on a beat and learning the best ways to approach them. “Part of knowing your beat is being downtown on a daily basis,” Van Buskirk said.

Downtown patrols have officers interacting with the dozen or so homeless people who spend much of their days downtown — some of whom have mental health issues — and learning how to interact in ways that won’t be seen as antagonistic. Sometimes the interests of the city collide with the interests of visitors, requiring police to step in.

Patrol officer Ryan Tellier, who has been on the city force for about three years, said he believes foot patrol officers complement the work being done by the department as a whole. Patrol officers serve as an extension of the department, removing some of the need to come by the station for questions or guidance, Tellier said.

He said the added visibility has cut down on some incidents, like open drug deals. People have taken note of more police in the area and have moved on, said Tellier. “It shows people we’re actually out here,” he said.

People will sometimes approach patrol officers to relay something they had seen the night before but were reluctant or unable to report right away, Tellier said. Those tips can lead to arrests or information related to open cases.

Tellier works the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and also does bike patrol as well as foot and cruiser patrol downtown.

He loves bike patrol, calling it “the best gig going in Northampton — no lie.” He says it has the advantage of allowing officers to cover distance faster than an officer on foot, but he also noted that it is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

In his time on the beat, Tellier said he often acts as a sort of mediator between people at odds with each other. At times this means speaking with everyone involved to determine if it is a misunderstanding that can be remedied by some conversation or whether greater police intervention is in order. “It’s always an evolving job,” he said.

On a recent weekday patrol, Tellier was contacted by the city Central Services Director David Pomerantz about noise filtering from Pulaski Park next door through the windows that were open while air conditioners were being installed. Tellier met with Pomerantz, but wasn’t able to find the noisemakers.

Tellier said in a case like that he would have wanted to evaluate the problem and try to talk to everybody involved before doing something like asking a group to clear out of the park. “We don’t want to kick people out of the park if we don’t have to,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

Tellier and Van Buskirk said the calls that come in during downtown patrols run the gamut from the mundane, like permit checks or minor noise complaints, to shoplifting, car accidents and assaults, some of which have put city officers out of work due to injuries. “You name it, we kind of see it down here,” Tellier said.

The tenor of the city changes after dark, Tellier said, with more visitors under 30 coming downtown as the night wears on. At times the bar scene can lead to drunken behavior that requires police intervention. “It’s a completely different deal, with completely different people,” he said.

Noise disturbances, domestic assaults and public intoxication tend to increase in the later hours, both officers said.

Van Buskirk said the new emphasis on community policing is a welcome one after recent shake-ups within the department, including the departure of a longtime captain. “We’re excited about the department and the direction it’s going,” he said.

Van Buskirk said he enjoys interacting with people on the street — whether it’s information, a question or a pleasantry. “You’re not bothering us, it’s our job,” he said.

“It makes the community stronger when everyone works together,” Van Buskirk said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.