Police force reaches out to town

Norwood police officers Peter Borroni and Sgt. Kevin McDonough talk over some ideas for improving security at their businesses with Richard LeVangie of Westwood Motors and Whitey Anderson of Settles Glass.


NORWOOD- When three police officers in two cruisers pulled up to a cluster of automotive shops off Route 1 one morning last week, surprised employees gathered immediately.

When the officers walked into Peter Troccoli’s transmission business, he stood up behind his desk, a decidedly startled look on his face. After all, no one had called the police, and as far as anyone knew no crime had been committed in the area. The question that hung in the air was, who was in trouble with the law?

The answer, as Patrolman Peter Borroni quickly explained, was no one. The purpose of the visit was to suggest improvements to security at the businesses. Such visits are part of the department’s latest effort to reach out to townspeople and to implement a new philosophy known as community policing.

“They are used to seeing us only when there is a problem,” said Sgt. Kevin McDonough, coordinator for community police programs. “Now, we want them to see us other times, too.”

A growing trend in law enforcement, community policing has been the focus of attention recently in riot-torn Los Angeles as a way to help heal police-community relations. The St. Clair report commissioned last year to suggest improvements in the Boston Police Department recommended more community policing.

The Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council, which trains most municipal police recruits as well as campus, parole, probation and corrections officers, is beginning to incorporate community policing in its courses.

“I sense many chiefs in Massachusetts are very interested in knowing more about this concept,” said William Baker, executive director of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council.
Though there is much talk about the need for better communications between police and people in the community, defining community policing is not always easy.

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“It is a philosophy woven into everything you do,” Baker said. “There are 100 ways to define it; basically it means turning a negative interaction into a positive one.”

One way Baker did that when he was chief in Southborough and in Sutton was to write to people who criticized the police. “They appreciated the response even if they didn’t agree,” he said. In Madison, Wis., the most widely known model for community policing, officers hand out safety literature to motorists they stop for speeding, Baker said.

In Norwood, Chief George DiBlasi says community policing means helping law-abiding citizens solve problems.

Police spend 20 percent of their time fighting crime and 80 percent on social service work, he said. “The paramilitary concept is dead.”

In some ways, community policing is a throwback to the neighborhood walking beat that police departments got away from with the advent of more cruisers and high-tech crime fighting. “The key is to get officers out of their cars and talking to the community,” DiBlasi said.

The first program DiBlasi implemented, dubbed Walk and Talk, calls on officers to drop in at businesses, PTO meetings, civic assemblies, senior drop-in centers or other social gatherings to get to know people. The Adopt-a-Cop program means officers once a month have lunch with students at elementary schools. A monthly cable television show called Crime Watch has featured shows on
drugs, home security and a reenacted drunken driving arrest.

The newest program, named Night Watch and based on a program in North Miami Beach, targets business owners and was a way to involve officers working the mid-night-to-8 shift. Officers visit businesses such as Troccoli’s during the late-night shift to note such possible security problems as lack of outside lighting and entries hidden by overgrown bushes. They leave a note under the door for the business owner. The next day, another officer visits to talk about the observations.

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DiBlasi also wants officers to look more approachable. To soften the image, the black leather jackets that have long been part of officers’ uniforms are being replaced by Gor-tex cloth jackets. “The connotation of black leather is intimidation,” McDonough said. In addition, to brighten new cruisers, officers have designed a new red, white and blue paint scheme to replace the traditional black and white scheme.

Community policing does not mean the police are getting soft on crime, DiBlasi said. “We are very tough on the bad guys.” The number of arrests have remained the same, and radar speed traps are set up as frequently as ever, he said.

DiBlasi, who has been police chief for 11 years, served in the military police for four years, “No one was more paramilitary than me,” he said. Two or three years ago he began exploring a community policing point of view because of complaints that his department was too efficient, “meaning we were issuing too many citations, making too many arrests.” Even though arrests have not gone down, the “efficiency” complaints have stopped, he said.

Although community policing in action seemed to catch Troccoli and neighboring business owners off guard last week, once the puzzlement wore off, they warmed to the concept. “We need it,” said Richard LeVangie, owner of Westwood Automotive. The outdoor lighting police suggested on his building and the rear of Settles Glass Co. next door could deter the youths who sometimes drink there in the summer, he said.

(The Boston Globe-May 17, 1992)