Amherst after dark

The police cruiser.  The flashing lights.  The cell block.  What can I say?  Sometimes things get kind of wild.  Just another Friday night for yours truly.

Well, sort of.

In the wee hours of Friday night and Saturday morning, I did a “ride along” with Lieutenant Bob O’Connor of the Amherst Police Department.  What an experience!

It started with a tour of the station, which is why I got to see the cell block.  It was empty at that point, but wouldn’t be for long.

Then we went out on the road (after I signed a waiver, acknowledging that I was aware that the ride along could result in injury or death - !!! - and that the Town would not be responsible.) 

We were in a silver cruiser with lights, but without all the police car markings.  Lt. O’Connor was the OIC – Officer in Charge, I think – for the shift, and he goes all over town.  He monitors the radio traffic and heads to the hot spots, and also checks out busy areas for potential trouble.  While the patrol cars are assigned to different zones of town, the OIC is everywhere. 

We mostly made a continuous circuit of the downtown area and North Amherst, diverting off North Pleasant Street to places like Fearing Street and the Nutting/Phillips neighborhood, Hobart Lane, Puffton, and the complexes on Meadow Street.  We also checked out the Notch, where the Mel Gibson movie was filming.  Had more activity been happening in the south, we would have been at that end of town more.

It was a fairly quiet night, in part because of the late Red Sox game, and the chilly temperature.  We did have a few dramas though.   A noise complaint on Strong Street resulted in a couple of arrests after a guy was fighting with an officer and crushed him with a slammed door.  That guy also put his arm through a window and bled all over the place – the officers, the street, the ambulance.  The force was then one man short as the injured officer had to go to the hospital, to get checked out himself and to guard the guy who was under arrest.  I believe the officer was OK, but he needed a new uniform since his was contaminated with the guy’s blood.  (I learned Saturday at the Fire Department’s open house that the ambulance had to be taken out of service to be cleaned after that call.) 

Another drama was the arrest of a kid who had been on a bus.  Officers ride the busses Thursday through Saturday nights, which is requested and paid for by UMass transit.  I don’t know what he did, but once he was off the bus, the officers needed pepper spray to subdue him. 

Otherwise, we were cruising around.  The thing that was most interesting to me was Lt. O’Connor’s hyper-alertness.  Even though I was asking him a million questions, he was constantly taking in the surroundings.  He watches body language – is anything amiss with that couple?  He listens to the boisterous noise of a group of kids – is it the sound of goofing off, or are there notes of aggression?  That kind of attention means slowing down, scrutinizing, and turning around to check again.  I can understand how this could feel a bit like harassment to those being scrutinized, but that wasn’t what it felt like from inside the car.  It felt like protection.  It felt like when your parents came down to the basement where you were hanging out with your teenage friends.  Just making sure everything is OK.  Just keeping you safe.        

Luckily, drunk kids doing dumb things was all I saw Friday.  As anyone who reads the Police Report knows, thing can get much worse. 

I enjoyed every minute of it and I learned so much:  how the Police organization and patrol shifts are structured; what the Communications Center looks like; the complicated issues involved with juvenile arrests; how the Police, Fire and other departments train together for crisis response; what makes intersection lights trip for ambulances; that the Police Department gets some vehicles from other Amherst departments and from other towns; that female prisoners at the station are required to have a female matron to check on them; that computers in the cruisers keep officers aware of the status of each call; why administering a breathalyzer requires monitoring the person for 20 minutes first; that there was never a budget for weight room equipment, so the officers pitch in and purchase used equipment from colleges and health clubs; and so much more. 

And I learned a bit about what the streets of Amherst are like in the middle of the night, and how attentive the Police Department is to keeping us safe.


Alison said:


Thanks so much for taking this ride and telling us all about it. The closest most of us come to this is via the fascinating police log. I have no doubt that our public safety resources are stretched to the limit each weekend during the academic year. Maybe we could get a documentary of what Amherst looks like after dark...that would be enlightening.


Clare said:

I've always thought I would want to do that. Thanks for doing it for me, your detailed report makes me feel like I was there! (how lucky for me i wasn't, i hate the sight of blood!)
I think it would be fantastic if you were to come visit one of our schools next. You so kindly invited my 9 year old daughter to join you one day this past summer while you delivered Meals on Wheels (which she really enjoyed), so how about she invites you for a visit to her 4th grade class at Crocker Farm School?! I know you went to school at Marks Meadow (a few years ago) but wouldn't it be great to visit one of our schools with your "Select Board Member" hat on?!
I know Grace would be delighted to introduce you to her teacher and classmates.
Let me know what you think and we'll make plans,
Clare Bertrand

Alison -- It really was fascinating, and would make for a great documentary. And you're right about resources being stretched. I only wrote about the most dramatic calls I saw, but didn't include ones like the false alarm for a structure fire, assistance with an open container violation, etc. And I didn't include anything about the calls we didn't go to -- the radio was crackling constantly (a speeding erratic driver, medical issues, fights, noise complaints and more) and all those calls need to be checked out, with the officers never knowing what they'll find when they get there. Good news: I can confirm that the officer who went to the hospital is fine.

Clare -- Great idea. That would be fun and very interesting. Hmmmm, what other areas of Town work might I experience? I had a grand tour of all the fire and ambulance stuff on Saturday, thanks to AFD Captain John Ingram. Maybe this winter Guilford Mooring will let me ride on a snow plow. It's like "Take a Select Board Member to Work Day."

Baer said:

Hi Stephanie - Great job doing a ride-along! It's so important for our elected leaders to experience all the workings of the town. And thanks for publishing it all!


Mary Carey said:

Dramatic and such a good idea for a selectperson to do. Why DO the police have to monitor a person for 20 minutes before administering a Breathalyzer? Is it the law?

The ride along is a good idea, and the APD encourages Select Board members, Town Meeting members and others to do it. (Even just curious residents can do it, I believe.)

Per the breathalyzer: now that I'm answering this, I realize that what I learned was why you wait 20 minutes, and not necessarily why the person is monitored. I would guess, but I don't know, that that part is assurance, so the police can say in court, "Yes, we're certain this person didn't gargle(or whatever,) creating a false positive reading." Because preventing the false positive is why you wait. I would have thought you would do the test as soon as possible, before any effects wear off. But actually, you want the test to represent a "clean lung breath" (I think that was the term,) and not be influenced by residual alcohol in the mouth -- from liquor, or even mouthwash. And I don't know if that's the law, or just a standard practice.

Anonymous said:

A Friday night ride along in the ambulance would be a real eye opener for you to share with the community!

Eva Schiffer said:

Perhaps Lt. O'Connor could be asked to clarify the breathalizer protocol, to be posted either here or on the APD blog.

Other Select Board members (including me)have gone on ride-alongs, but none have provided such an excellent report. Thanks so much.

Ed Cutting said:

You know, I wouldn't mind doing this. I am an honest scholar and would like to see the other side.

Having said that, there *is* a real issue of a general lack of anything resembling community relations between the APD and the UM student body. It wasn't always this way -- back in the '70s & '80s there was so much community outreach that a UM student named Jack Luippold drifted over into police stuff and wound up becoming the former Chief of the UMPD.

The program he was in as a student doesn't currently exist. We can assign blame, blame budgets, but the fact is that it doesn't exist.

It also probably ought to be mentioned that (I think) that this Lt. O'Connor is the husband of the current UMPD Chief Barbara O'Connor. And I believe both reside in Hadley where, I believe, she is on their selectboard (unless there are two Barbara O'Connors, which is possible.)

My point: the three municipalities are tied together a whole lot more than many people realize. This isn't good or bad, just is.

But as to the relationship between the APD and UM kids, that IS a problem that Amherst does kinda need to deal with.

And I saw it from the students' side during Hobart - an open challenge to the APD, I would be happy to see it from your side too.

Ed Cutting, MEd, CAGS
UMass Student

ed cutting said:

Larry Kelly cited you -- you do NOT want to have numbered survey forms for the town manager. Once you number the forms you (a) have the ability to know exactly to whom each specific form was issued and thus who filled it out and/or (b) have people filling them out thinking that you will know who they are.

Think about license plates -- once you put a unique number on something, you can identify it and trace it. And thus it is no longer anonymous.

BTW - my favorite trick for a truly anonymous but honest survey is to find some unique funky paper manufactured by some out-of-business paper mill and print my survey on a unique paper that can't be found. Then while I don't know who each respondent is, I do know that unless someone stole a few reams of my personal paper, they aren't stuffing the ballot boxes.

Although, historically, there is an example of malfeasance in this too. Back in the 19th Century there was a railroad strike and some bad feelings afterwards. Over time, railroad workers sought to move to other railroads and asked for (and received) letters of reference.

Those who had been "scabs" received a letter of reference typed on paper that had a crane watermark. Those who had participated in the strike received an identical letter, signed by the same administrator, but which was typed on paper where the crane in the watermark had a broken neck. And the union was punished because the paper could be traced back to specific people.

I know your intent is noble -- but if you want honest input you need to protect the anonymous nature of anything folk write and that is not going to happen with numbered survey forms...


Anon: An ambulance ride along would be amazing. I wonder if that's even possible. Space is at a premium, and it would seem like an invasion of the patient's privacy. Who would want to have a gawker there at such a vulnerable and scary time?

Ed -- Give it a go. Contact Captain Mike Kent to make arrangements. And you are correct that Lt. O'Connor is the husband of the UMPD Chief and Hadley SB member.

Per the employee questionnaires: I was worried that people might have that concern too, but there is only so much paranoia-proofing we can do here. The survey numbers won't be linked to the person. Period. We also won't dust them for fingerprints or attempt to lift any DNA samples. If people don't feel comfortable filling them out for any reason, they don't have to participate. We are trying our best to provide an opportunity for staff to give meaningful input. Maybe it will be effective, maybe it won't. I think it's worth a shot, and it will help us know how we might improve the process for the future. But actually, now I'm thinking about a possible alternative to numbering... hmmmm...

Kay Moran said:

It's wonderful you took advantage of the APD ride-along experience. The person to contact about an ambulance ride-along is Fire Chief Keith Hoyle, though patient confidentiality could be an issue for both the fire department and the hospital. A post-midnight ride on a snowplow would be eye-opening, not to mention spine-jarring, as I learned several years ago. And if you haven't already done it, get Bob Pariseau to give a guided tour of the sewage treatment plant, one of Amherst's greatest unsung success stories.

John said:

Stephanie, I think that it is great to see a member of town government take the initiative to lose a night of sleep to see how the town's resources are used (and abused) throughout the night. You now know first hand how Amherst's fine men and women of the Police and Fire Department work together under all concievable circumstances, and make it work.

You also now know how things can get ugly. Fast. It doesn't take much to completely deplete the town of any and all available police officers, ambulances, and fire trucks. The call that injured the police officer brought backup to the scene, and left the rest of the town with no protection. The call for a reported structure fire produced one fire truck, with only one firefighter onboard, as the rest of the the on-duty crew were on ambulance calls and unable to respond. Had there been a true house fire, little would have been able to be done with one firefighter.

Thank you again for taking the initiative and time to get a first hand look at how the public safety system works. You have taken the initiative to educate yourself on a system most people are not familiar with. Hopefully the knowledge you gained will better serve you to provide the police and fire departments with what they need to be effective in their everyday duties of protecting the people of Amherst.

Richard Morse said:

Congratulations on doing the ride-along, especially on one of the wild weekend nights that are a regular part of life in Amherst.

I am still at a loss why it has been so difficult to get other Select Board members to make this small sacrifice of time and sleep just once per term.

I think that there are things that we don't want to see, things we don't want to know, about this fair town of ours. And it's the poorest among us, whom we claim to care so much about, who are in the most danger from a overstretched, undermanned, overstressed police force.

But Town Meeting blithely goes on looking to the police for those much needed "efficiencies" year after year. And a different group in town claims to be pro-public safety and anti-override. That dog won't hunt either. The numbers just don't add up.

There seem to be two areas of life where we now revel in being lied to: love and taxes.

dbryne said:

I would like to meet with you to discuss what I see as a conflict of interest in the ZBA-I have one or two other things I would like to talk about briefly. Am flexible as to time and place (to some degree)

Thank you for your time

dbryne said:

Sent request to meet-it came back maybe this one will get through??



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