For the first time in over 30 years, Berkshire County, Massachusetts will have a new sheriff. With the voluntary departure of Carmen Massimiano, who took the job in 1978 and went on to become the longest serving sheriff in the county’s history, residents had the unique opportunity to vote on his successor in an important September 14 primary. Considering the challenges facing the county, from rampant drug use to the far-reaching implications of shrinking budgets, I wish our new sheriff good luck in the role. Unfortunately, I have lingering doubts that residents voted for the right man.
Although retired detective Thomas Bowler’s victory doesn’t officially make him sheriff-elect just yet, his name will be unopposed on the ballot on November 2. As a result, the upcoming election is essentially a formality, clearing the way for Bowler to take the job when Massimiano’s term expires on January 5 next year.
The recent primary election was the culmination of an especially hard-fought campaign between Bowler and state Rep. Daniel Bosley. The men offered voters starkly different perspectives on the role of sheriff. Bowler characterized the race as a choice between “politics and public service”, and voters seemed to agree. In the end, residents opted to extend Bowler’s career in law enforcement, making him the county’s top cop. Bowler’s focus on criminal justice was a vision which contrasted with Bosley’s emphasis on the importance of budgetary influence and legislative savvy.
Massimiano, continuously unopposed in elections since 1980, pulled out of the race in January citing an inability to run an effective campaign and fulfill the duties of his job while also addressing his wife’s “ongoing health concerns”. Although he received praise from county officials, particularly for his leadership of the county’s multimillion dollar jail and corrections facility which opened in 2001, Massimiano was mired by sexual abuse allegations which made local front page news in February.
Although eventually there wasn’t any doubt that the sheriff’s office would change hands, the competitive race gave voters the unique opportunity to define what the job really means. Bowler’s 24-year career in law enforcement earned him the endorsements of the area’s district attorney, David Capeless, as well as unions and groups representing county corrections and police officers.
On the surface, Bowler seems a natural choice for the job. The retired detective’s unquestionably solid experience in criminal justice should breath new life into enforcement efforts on the streets, where drug use continues to be rampant. The only problem is that Bowler’s staunch advocate Capeless provides an example, still fresh in mind, of how blurred the lines can get when prosecuting the state’s drug laws.
In the wake of undercover arrests made in 2004, Capeless led the controversial prosecution of several teenage high school students who had been caught buying and selling small amounts of marijuana (as little as 1.12 grams) in a Great Barrington parking lot. Capeless drew heated protest from residents when he pushed for mandatory minimum two-year sentences due to a law regarding drug dealing near schools. Whether they knew it at the time or not, the young defendants were within 1,000 feet of a church preschool.
The law Capeless cited didn’t specify which type of drugs required the mandatory sentencing, or whether or not distinctions would be made for first time offenders. The D.A.’s unflinching stance undoubtedly played an important part in the passage of a 2008 ballot measure which made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana punishable by fine instead of arrest, jail time, and a criminal record.
Unfortunately, I fear that the newly elected Bowler shares the D.A.’s philosophy that spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on sweeping arrests and lengthy trials is an effective way to address the region’s drug problem. Summing up the county’s budget as “gloomy” would be putting it mildly, and throwing more money into misguided enforcement efforts would be a mistake we can’t afford.