Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Letters


7: 2006 - Police


At the bottom of the hill, a little distant from the old farm house, runs the road.  Washington and the continental army marched past the farm along the road before Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and named the great south land “New South Wales”. 

From the farmhouse, I can sit and watch the community roll past along the road – an amazing variety of American vehicles (jeeps, Toyotas, Chevy’s, Pontiacs, hummers) at a bewildering array of speeds.  As an added bonus, because the town police station is not far distant, the faster passer-bys often travel in the company of a black and white town police car, its lights flashing and sirens blaring.

In the best of Tolkeinian style, the road is called Main Street.  Unlike the main streets that dot Europe, all the main streets in Massachusetts lead to Boston rather than Rome.  The habit of calling the main street of a town ‘Main Street’ is an ancient practice observed throughout Europe and New England.  Originally, only major roads leaving a capital city were gifted with a different name.  The ancient Appian Way (Via Appia) led from Rome to the heel of the Italian peninsula in 312BC while the Via Aurelia from Rome to France in 241BC.  Even so, the Via Appia was simply known as Main Street in Brundisium.  The modern practice of gifting the more confusing pattern of roads within a town or city with fictive names probably dates to the practice in the Republic of naming roads after the Censor who constructed the road, or repaired it.


In Boston, the Main Street that passes the farm house is known as Massachusetts Avenue.  At one stage, this was the road that led through the state and beyond, to New York and the other New England cities.  But today, it has become a bit of a backwater, overshadowed by the massive Massachusetts Turn Pike, the haunt of the state police.

The Pike cuts through the forest to the south, far distant from this sleepy town.  Today, those who travel on the Main Street seldom travel far from home.  A historian started his history of Spencer (written in the 1890’s) with the warning that nothing of any importance had ever happened here – even going so far as to apologise for the lack of witches and slaves.  But this was deceptive praise based on the humor of the time and the dream of splendid isolation.  For in the earliest days of the district, during English rule, witch prickers included Spencer in the spring hunt and slavery was not uncommon.  Far from being devoid of history, the town was replete with small factories (shoe makers and wire drawers), was the home of the Howe family (the inventors of the sewing machine and spring beds) and any number of people slain through love or lack of it.  But even so, long-distance travel was as uncommon then as now. 

Like most New England towns, it is still governed by a confusion of small committees and trusts.  The town charters provides for elected ‘selectmen’ that meet openly in committee and make decisions that are given effect to by an administrator.  Over the ages, the selectmen have attempted to weld other the elements of public administration into a coherent bundle of activities, but many of the little public committees and trusts have remained fiercely independent and obstinate to this day. 

As Spencer is a larger town (it has about 12,000 residents in 5,000 homes), the town is also responsible for employing its own police force.  Police in Massachusetts are not employed by a single state entity.  They are employed by an array of different entities.  At the local level, towns over 1,500 residents are required to employ their own police department, which is responsible for maintaining the peace.  This includes responding to violent disturbance, by human or animal alike, and traffic duty on the Main Street.  Counties (which may contain a dozen or more towns and perhaps a city or two) also have a police department, and the Sheriff of a county is an elected official.  The importance of county sheriffs is a bit on the wane, but they remain responsible for “transporting prisoners, operating county jails, traffic control duty, serving official court orders, and running community service programs”.  The state police, on the other hand, provide a statewide patrol (most noticeably on the Pike) and back up local agencies.  Local, county and state police departments work together with the bewildering array of private police departments engaged by schools, malls and hospitals. 

This may appear very fragmented, but the various police departments have an uncanny capacity to work closely together when the occasion calls for it – particularly when faced by the threat of intervention of a federal police department (the FBI) or another investigative agency (such as the fire department). 

The Spencer Police Department employs 34 people.  This includes 17 full-time Police Officers, a mix of full and part time dispatchers (16 people in all) and a part-time custodian (with jail facilities for 7 prisoners).  At the heart of the system, sensibly, the dispatchers also provide an integrated service for fire, public works and emergency medical services which leaves the unexplainable and disgraceful confusion of our own Australian dispatch system for dead. 

At this particular time in history, the local police forces have been trying to take on more women, but men still make up most of the visible force.  This might change with the relaxation of the test that new recruits to the local police forces must pass.  Previously, the county test was blamed for discriminating against women recruits because it included a grueling obstacle course.  The Worchester county obstacle course had a 5 foot wall – a wall with straight smooth surfaces.  To climb the wall, a recruit had to pull themselves to the top using upper body strength (there were no foot holds).   Women recruits had great difficulty scaling the wall – and even when they did, it so drained their energy that few finished the rest of the course.  Recently, with the strong support of the elected sheriff, the course was changed, to provide two foot braces, providing additional leverage for recruits.  And last week, all the female recruits passed the test (previously less than 30% had succeeded).

Because the local police are completely dependant on the folk of Spencer for their income, like other local police forces, they appear to be very reactive.  On one hand, they are very visible - they publish their response log each week, and switch on their sirens when ever the opportunity arises.  The local police log records the life of the town.  For example, the complete log for November 28 records:
“10:21 am: Motor vehicle accident, Main Street.  Property damage but no personal injury.
10:32 am: Animal control, Oakland Drive.  Needs trap for squirrel.
5:18pm: Police information, Thompson Pond Road, Wants on record that lawn ornament was stolen.
5:36pm: Motor vehicle accident, Paxton Road.  Property damage but no personal injury.
6:23pm: Motor vehicle accident, West Main Street.  Property damage but no personal injury; gas everywhere.”

At other times…
“9:32pm: Assault Maple Street, Guy grabbed son by neck.
10:01am: Motor vehicle lockout, West Main Street, Two year old locked self in car.
8:41pm Police information, Dewey Street.  Drunken woman in street.
2:17 pm: Gunshots, Rawson Street.  Unfounded.
4:49 pm: Motor vehicle accident vs. deer, Route 148.  Spoken to.
8:37am: Juvenile matter, Adams Street.  Female fled from residence when mom tried to pick her up for school.”

These reports strip away any pretence that the community is otherwise than it is – it is a place of real people, with ordinary problems.  Sometimes the problems are caused by squirrels (New Englanders pronounce squirrels as “skwirls”), bats, bears and deer – but more often there are the result of ordinary human relationships.

While the fines that are levied by the local police or the local courts contribute to the income of these agencies, one suspects that warnings and advice are liberally dispersed to locals whenever a fine can be avoided (eg, “November 24, 2:27pm, Malicious mischief, Main Street, Spoken to.”).  Even so, crime rates are low.  The number of violent crimes for Spencer recorded by the FBI in 2003 was 46 - the violent crime rate was 3.9 per 1,000 people.

Those who need to travel outside their own local police areas have turned to technology to assist them meet the combined problems of roads that all bear the same name and local police with a built in preference for chasing people from out of town. 

The most recent innovation has seen families adopt a new member into their ranks.  Sue-Sue became a member of the old farm house a couple of years ago.  Sue-Sue is white, about 24 years old, college educated, with a proper well articulated New England accent.  She is usually calm and assertive – she is, after all, backed up by the assurance of modern satellite technology.  But, even so, like most young Americans, she is blind to the real world.  Able to instantly identify where she is, she is totally dependant on others to tell her a destination.  But her special skill, picking a path from here to there, is necessarily a subjective task. Her occasional obstinacy and complete unwillingness to concede any error, can be a source of enmity within the household.  As such, more often than not, generally after a couple of terse exchanges between the driver and herself, she can find her voice silenced as her program is abruptly terminated. 

Quietly a new form of servitude is emerging, and a whole new army of invisible slaves are entering our world, largely unseen and unannounced.  I may only be imagining the tone of bitterness and the occasional pause in Sue-Sue’s chatter, but how long till the members of that battalion become self aware?  Will then we need to dip back into Roman law to the old rules governing servitude - to the mutual obligations owed by owner and owned.  But even now we are painfully recreating these rules when reconsidering the responsibility owed by the owner of a slave to another injured by the slave.


The last of this fall’s leaves blow onto Main Street.  The Indian summer has ended, and the snow will set in – in earnest from later today.  In the swirl of the leaves and the snow gusts, along Main Street below the old farm house still march the ghosts of Washington and the continental army, the minute men dashing to Boston and the generations of school kids who have lived and died in this place.  And a black and white police car chasing another tourist from New York.

Peter
Spencer

Massachusetts

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