By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — Police Chief Rick Smith was at Monday night’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen for the presentation of his department’s budget. But in light of what he called “a tough year for law enforcement,” Smith also took the opportunity to correct some misconceptions regarding police work in general and to highlight some positives about Wakefield’s Police Department.
Contrary to the impression one might get from following the news, violent crime in the United States is down, according to Smith.
“America in 2015 is a far safer place than America in 1985,” Smith said. “In fact, violent crime in the United States is at the lowest number since 1978.”
Smith said there was a key reason for this reduction in crime, not only nationwide but right here in Wakefield.
“No single factor has been more crucial to reducing crime levels than the partnership between law enforcement agencies and the communities we serve,” Smith told the board. “Unfortunately, the future of this vital and successful partnership is at risk because of a rising level of concern over issues surrounding police conduct and tactics and a misconception by the public about what we as law enforcement officers are up against and the daily challenges of our jobs.”
Smith stressed that what frequently makes the local and national news is not representative of what police do on a daily basis.
“What many people don’t realize is that the majority of contact law enforcement has with citizens is non-violent and non-controversial,” Smith said. “The recent incidents that have been the center of focus are not the norm. Of the millions of arrests made each year, fatal encounters with law enforcement occur at a rate of far below .005 percent. While any death or injury is of course extremely regrettable, these incidents are rare. In Wakefield, our arrest rates have dropped by 14 percent while our calls for service have increased. To me, that represents a strong pattern of conflict resolution by our officers and puts us way ahead of the recently published President’s Task Force on Policing in the 21st Century.
Smith said that U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that 85 percent of people who request police assistance are satisfied with police response, almost 10 percent higher than Americans’ overall level of consumer satisfaction.
“Judging from the number of officer complaints and the total calls for service on an annual basis, the satisfaction index is much higher here in Wakefield,” Smith added. “With over 15,000 calls for service and fewer that a half dozen citizen complaints, it puts us on the 90th percentile. I am confident and proud of the service we provide.”
Smith noted that police departments everywhere are being asked to do more with fewer resources.
“We are not just responding to crime, violence and disruption but also to homeland security concerns, cybercrime, an exponential increase in non-criminal crisis calls and more,” Smith said. “Often times we are not just operating as law enforcement officers but also assuming the responsibility of social workers.”
Smith said that addressing the recent challenges faced by law enforcement requires the willing cooperation of all segments of society.
“We must all work together to try to defuse the current climate,” Smith told the selectmen. “Yes, we all have the right to our opinions and freedom of speech but not the right to violence. After all, we are the guardians of society. It’s time, from a national perspective, to stop criticizing and cooperatively to take a positive step forward and to start looking for solutions.”
Selectman Ann Santos noted the importance of having a well-trained and well-educated Police Department.
“I think that’s how you avoid some of the problems that we’ve seen across the country,” Santos said.
Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio noted that Wakefield’s Police Department is one of only 17 police forces in the state that is accredited.
“We are the envy of a lot of surrounding communities,” Maio said. “We don’t have the problems that a lot of other communities have because of the educated police force and because of the respect that they have, not only for the people of Wakefield but for the Chief.”
In other business this week, the Board of Selectmen:
• Set the date for the 2015 Annual Town Meeting for Monday, May 5. The board also opened the Town Meeting warrant and set the closing date for the warrant as April 3, 2015.
• Approved a request from J&A Auto Body for a Class II License at 1273 Main St.