Part 1 of a 2-part story
By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- With the current contract to provide police services in Devens set to expire next year, MassDevelopment, in accordance with Chapter 498, state legislation that spells out the structures and procedures by which the agency operates the former military base, recently sent out requests for proposals to eligible entities: the U.S. Department of Defense, the towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, whose historic boundaries cut through Devens and the Mass State Police, which has held the contract for about a decade.
The Harvard Police Department, backed by the selectmen, applied for the job.
Monday night, Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark, Selectman Ron Ricci and Town Administrator Tim Bragan came to the Devens Committee to talk about the proposal, not so much to make a pitch as to gather input.
This visit was about "reaching out" to Devens residents first, to find out what they wanted or were concerned about in terms of policing the small but growing community.
There was no presentation, per se. Chief Denmark said he was reluctant to tip his hand by providing details such as staffing and budget estimates until the RFP process has concluded and the proposal becomes a public record. But he sketched the time line, talked about building coalitions, breaking down barriers and sharing resources and attempted to allay fears and address concerns expressed by a handful of Devens residents at the meeting, including three committee members and a half dozen others.
"We submitted questions based on the RFP" and received answers back from MassDevelopment, Denmark said. "We're using that data to finalize the proposal." But there's an element missing: input from the Devens community. "If we are awarded the contract, what would your concerns be?" he asked.
For about an hour, Denmark and the other two visitors fielded questions that ranged from attitude issues to practical matters such as how quickly Harvard police officers could be expected to show up in an emergency and whether their responses to calls and complaints would be the same for Devens residents as for Harvard residents.
Denmark's answers, respectively, were five minutes and absolutely. As for the long view, "Our idea is to form a long term relationship," he said. "We'll build it to suit your needs."
Staffing will be determined by standards and demographics, he said, but he was more interested in the big picture. "I want to see what your perceptions are of us," he said.
Statistics: The Harvard Police Department. now consists of nine full-time officers, including himself, Denmark said. Obviously, if the Devens contract is awarded to Harvard, he'd hire more, he said. The department budget is about $1 million, not counting dispatchers.
In August, Harvard will be part of a regional dispatch center set to open in Devens next month with three other towns, Denmark explained. The new arrangement is expected to cut costs and enhance services, and in Denmark's view it's a step in the right direction, as more small towns across the state look at sharing resources such as public safety services.
Under the current contract, MassDevelopment pays about $1.5 million for the state police to cover Devens.
Asked about distance, Denmark said it's about 6 miles from Harvard to Devens, line-to-line, and a bit longer via route 2. Either way, travel time is about 5 minutes, he said.
"That's a long way," one resident said, adding that when she had a gas leak at her home, state police responded right away.
"In reality, their backup is in Leominster," Denmark said, noting that five minutes is a normal response time, or less for "primary" calls. Asked about extras MSP can provide, such as K-9 units, Denmark acknowledged the town doesn't have perks like that in-house but does have access to them via mutual aid agreements.
Comparisons and Contrasts
Armen Demerjian said he was the first resident in the new Devens, having moved into his brick bungalow on Aumen Street in May, 2001. He and his wife moved their business - Eglomise Designs, Inc. - to Devens the following year after renovating a former hospital building three blocks from their home.
Demerjian described two incidents in which the state police were not only quick to arrive but were proactive rather than reactive. Once, it was an open window at the business that they alerted him to. Another time, when a smoke alarm went off at the business, they showed up at his home while he was still getting dressed to go over there, he said. "These are instances (in which) they did an excellent job," he said.
"Now I wonder, could Harvard Police equal that service?"
Denmark didn't hesitate to answer. "Absolutely," he said.