Handcuffed to the past: Police departments hampered by outdated buildings, but chiefs face tough sell for new ones

By STEVE LANDWEHR


In hallways and behind nearly every desk, space heaters glow bright orange and red, fighting a losing battle with the drafts seeping through the walls of the 64-year-old building.

There are no women's bathrooms. No cells to hold juveniles. The communications system, a virtual lifeline for police officers, is the oldest in the state, and prone to failure.

This is the home of the Beverly Police Department, where 61 patrolmen and 18 superior officers spend their days and nights at the business of public safety.

There have been several proposals to remedy this over the years, the most recent a suggestion to build a new station on a 2-acre site at the Cummings Center, but as Police Chief John Cassola says, "It always comes down to money."

Beverly is hardly unique. All across the North Shore, police officers are put in harm's way not only on the street, but in their own buildings. Police chiefs who work in the older stations tick off a list of common problems: Unsafe booking rooms; no private rooms to interview witnesses; no bathrooms or lockers for female officers; no holding cells for juveniles or women; inadequate work and storage space.

Plenty of schools and libraries with similar problems have been replaced or renovated in recent years, but police chiefs find selling a new station a much tougher pitch. Money, as Cassola says, is often the stumbling block, but politics is at work as well.

Middleton Town Administrator Ira Singer puts it simply: More peoples' daily lives are affected by what goes on in schools and libraries than by what happens inside a police station.

What's more, it's hard to convince the average, law-abiding citizen, who never sees the inside of a station for any length of time, that there's even a problem, Hamilton Police Chief Walter Cullen says.

In the battle to win taxpayers' hearts, and wallets, school and library projects also have a significant competitive advantage - substantial state reimbursements. Beverly Mayor William Scanlon notes that when the city's six elementary schools were renovated in recent years, the work cost Beverly taxpayers $18 million, while the state picked up the other $36 million.

"Right now there's no matching money of any kind for police or fire stations," Scanlon says.

State Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, a member of the House Public Safety Committee, supported a proposal by former state Sen. James Jajuga of Methuen to establish a state grant program similar to what's been done for schools to help pay for police and fire stations, but it was shot down.

"It's disheartening to me," said Hill, who sees problems with police stations throughout his district. Hill says up-to-date stations are more important than ever, particularly in light of new demands on police departments in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

But in today's economic climate, Hill sees little legislative appetite to revive Jajuga's proposal.

Crime scenes

It's not only police officers who are endangered in these buildings, prisoners and the public are at risk as well.

At 67, the Swampscott police station is even older than Beverly's. Asked to name its most serious shortcoming, Chief Ronald Madigan quickly replies, "Safety." The station's cells are in the basement, so prisoners, regardless of their danger to the public, have to be walked through public areas before they can be locked up.

In addition, there are no cells for juveniles, so if teens are arrested, an officer has to watch over them in an office. And the locker room and bathroom for female officers, who now represent 10 percent of the Swampscott Police Department, are woefully inadequate, Madigan says.

Wenham has a smaller police force, but problems at least as big as Swampscott's.

The station has no sally port - a locked area where a prisoner can be taken from a police cruiser into the station - so they have to be walked through the parking lot.

"We have had some attempted escapes in the back of the station," Police Chief William MacKenzie says. Equally dangerous is the layout of the booking area, MacKenzie says, which requires officers to turn their backs on the prisoners they're questioning.

In Essex, the building housing the police department was constructed in the 1950s, with police quarters added to it in 1970 "almost as an afterthought," Police Chief David Harrel says.

There's not a single cell in the building, so officers have to drive prisoners to Manchester and remain there to guard them until they are released or go to court. It's not merely a matter of inconvenience; it means an officer is off the street.

Harrel didn't mince words when asked if the facility creates a public safety problem.

"Absolutely. We can't provide a safe environment for interviews for people who might be filing a rape complaint. We can't talk to them in an area where the public can't see them."

Although personnel growth can be partly blamed for the crunch in older buildings, the chiefs all say there is something else behind their problems - policing is a different job than it was years ago. For starters, the amount of paperwork accompanying every complaint has grown exponentially, and officers compete with file cabinets for elbow room.

Also, nearly unanimously, the chiefs cited handling of domestic abuse cases as a dramatic change, and one that is hampered by their outdated buildings. Many of the older stations don't have private interview rooms for victims to file complaints out of sight and sound of their abuser.

Making a case

The chiefs working in these older buildings have another common lament: They've made the case for new facilities, and while the plans typically get a warm reception at the public town meeting, when voters close the curtain behind them at the ballot box, it's a different story.

One chief who managed to overcome that hurdle is Salem Police Chief Robert St. Pierre. His force moved into a new building just more than 11 years ago, leaving behind a station "built in the days of the horse and buggy."

St. Pierre says it was one thing convincing city officials a new facility was needed, and another convincing them what it should look like, and cost.

"You're not building a station for today," St. Pierre says, "you're building it for 50 or 60 years from now."

St. Pierre says chiefs in the older stations need to reach out to as many community groups as possible, and engage an ally some of them traditionally view as an enemy.

"You have to reach out to the press," he says. "They're gonna make your case for you."

There is a sense among some of the chiefs that like so many other changes, this one won't come about without a catastrophe.

Referring to the fact that people arrested in Swampscott, no matter how belligerent or combative, have to be marched through public spaces before they can be jailed, Chief Madigan voices a fear that is on the minds of many of his fellow chiefs.

"It's a recipe for disaster."

Staff writer