WHITMAN — There has been a slight decrease in the number of overdoses in town so far this year, but there is still work to be done, Whitman police and fire chiefs reported to the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, June 7.
Police Chief Scott Benton and Fire Chief Timothy Grenno provided a statistical snapshot of their departments during their monthly reports to selectmen.
Benton said there have been 5,656 log calls between Jan. 1, and May 6, compared to 4,782 during the same period last year and noted there have been 14 overdoses, two fatal, as of May 31, compared to 19 overdoses with one fatality during the same period last year. As of May 31, the department has recorded 181 arrests, criminal complaints and protective custodies.
Grenno reported 199 emergency responses in May, with Mondays being the busiest day and 59.8 percent of the calls being for rescue or EMS services and 10 percent of transports being for behavioral emergencies. The department also dealt with three DOAs in May, two directly related to opioid overdoses. Of sick patients the department helps, 4 percent have been Priority 1 patients requiring three firefighters to help them.
“The opioid crisis continues to be at the forefront,” Benton said, crediting legislation and the efforts of schools and community groups to aid police in combating the problem. “People are working tirelessly, I know. … This is not something that we’re just going to fix overnight, unfortunately.”
He said it will take a while before effect of a new state law limiting the length of new prescriptions for opioid pain killers is known.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked Benton about the approach one Massachusetts police chief is taking — agreeing to help get addicts into rehab instead of charging them if they voluntarily surrender drugs and paraphernalia to police. Bezanson noted that district attorneys have problems with that approach.
“I’m for anything that is going to help people,” Benton said. “I think probably the concern is police departments can’t grant amnesty to people, that’s the district attorney.”
Benton said police are concerned with probable cause before charging people, but indicated he is willing to try to help people who ask for it.
“I think anything that works, that helps people with this epidemic … it’s a public health and a public safety issue,” Benton said. “We have to deal with it. I’m proud of the way this town is dealing with it.”
The issue of probable cause also cropped up regarding the death of a dog last week at a local grooming business, as Benton also replied to Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski’s inquiry about that case.
“A lot of negative energy has been spent on that,” Kowalski said. “I love dogs. Dogs are good. It’s a sad thing, but that explosion on social media about that event [was] way over-blown.”
Benton agreed that pets are important to people and he does not take such incidents lightly, but the department is charged with investigating criminal activity. Animal Control Officer Lisa McKay, who is an ACO in several communities and has earned a solid reputation for her work, he said.
“She wouldn’t sweep something under the rug, even if you wanted her to,” Benton said.
The chief said they reviewed the groomer’s surveillance video, which showed six other dogs on premises at the time that were not harmed. There had never been a complaint filed against the business owners and no veterinary reports indicating involvement in the dog’s demise. A necropsy was not performed because the family was advised that the dog’s fever would have negated any results, according to Benton.
“Why did the dog die? I don’t know,” Benton said. “Our sole responsibility was looking at did Canine Groomers, in any way, negligently or recklessly — through a criminal act — facilitate that dog’s injury or death? The answer is no.”
Benton said once the incident was posted on Facebook, before the investigation took place, accusations of the police covering up for a business in town began.
“Do you know how many people we lock up? We lock up Whitman residents,” Benton retorted. “We don’t care. It is what it is.”
Benton said the business owners have since received threats to kill them or burn their house down.
“There was nothing, based on the evidence, that we were able to [determine] from the information we had,” he said. “The threshold is probable cause. We don’t worry about innocence or guilt, that’s up to the jury. Probable cause is not there.”
Bezanson agreed there are no winners in a case such as this one and commended Benton for his investigation.
Grenno also reported that a 21-year-old ambulance is being replaced, but the department may be running with a single ambulance in July. A new pumping engine, approved about two years ago, will be in service in about two weeks, with all necessary equipment to respond to both fires and motor vehicle accidents.
The LUCAS devices, which supply automatic chest compressions for CPR, have helped save more lives, including one cardiac patient who was taken directly to a cardiac catheterization procedure with the LUCAS device still in place during surgery.
“The important factor is to show what we’ve spent Town Meeting funds on for equipment for the ambulances,” Grenno said. “Last year we bought two LUCAS devices … We’ve had more patients delivered to the Brockton Hospital with pulses since we put those in service than we have in the past 20 years.”
The Fire Department observed Firefighters’ Memorial Sunday on June 5, bestowing service awards to 11 department members for service milestones ranging from 20 to 30 years.
In other business, a resident, frustrated by the failure of the school budget override, asked Selectmen Tuesday night if there was an alternative to the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday polling hours for Town Elections.
“I had no idea you had a vote on Saturday, 9 to 5,” said New York native Mary Fox of Washington Street, who has grandchildren in the W-H school system. “I think that’s a little restrictive. People have 12-hour shifts, they work. I would prefer, if at all possible that another date be selected and a bigger window … such as 12 hours to vote.”
Town Administrator Frank Lynam replied that town bylaws dictate a third Saturday in May election.
“We have actually tried to reschedule both Town Meeting and election in the past and we failed miserably in each case,” he said.
Lynam added that absentee ballots are available to those who can’t vote in person due to absence from the town during poll hours or are prevented from voting in person due to physical disability or religious belief.
“Our intent is to invite, not disenfranchise voting,” he said.