Policing a town from a 200-year-old former grocery store and blacksmithery is like playing Russian roulette, says Middleborough Police Chief Bruce Gates, considering the number of prisoners — some of them violent — who must be walked through public areas of the building.
“When you have hundreds of people in here annually, sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt or killed,” he said.
Gates and other members of the Police Station Building Committee are pushing a request to the April 22 Town Meeting to spend up to $700,000 on a design to revamp the former Peirce General Store, where the Police Department has operated since 1935.
The 1819 building, across from the town library on Main Street, had also been the home for four decades of the Fourth District Court of Plymouth County, which shared space behind padded leather doors with the police operation until 1977, when it moved to Wareham.
Gates said the building committee supports a plan costing approximately $12 million to build a two-story addition and maintenance facility, including more offices, locker rooms, an evidence area, meeting and equipment rooms, and a gym. At the top of the list is a sally port, to allow for more secure transport of suspects, he said.
But the town’s Finance Committee is not on board with the spending request and has voted, so far, not to recommend it to Town Meeting. Finance Committee chairman Richard Pavadore said it’s not that members don’t support having better police facilities.
“We are concerned about the total cost of this project, the upfront costs, and whether this location is the best location for a police station itself,” he said in an interview.
A joint meeting between the building committee and Finance Committee is scheduled for Tuesday. At that time, results of a test to determine the danger level of pockets of coal ash discovered behind the old building will also be reviewed.
Pavadore said Finance Committee members wonder whether the building committee “is more focused on keeping and maintaining a historic building in conjunction with a Police Station at a much higher cost” than considering other options that could potentially include purchasing or renovating less expensive space somewhere else. The existing police building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Recently, an option to relocate the police station to the East Main Street site of the Star Mills Lofts — at about half the cost of the building committee’s preferred plan — was raised, but Gates said it would be foolish to move to a renovated mill property located in a 100-year flood plain. No other locations are under consideration, he said.
The chief said the security issue can’t wait.
“We have to bring prisoners in and out of public areas and up and down two flights of stairs’’ to holding cells, Gates said. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
If the station had a sally port, he said, a cruiser could roll right into a secure garage bay, ensuring a suspect has no contact with the public.
Having an approved design in place could lead to lower bids for the work as contractors compete with one another for the job, which would be paid through a debt exclusion override of the tax limits of Proposition 2½, he said. And further savings might be found by entering into a regional dispatch system, he said.
Town Manager Charles Cristello said the building committee sees the police station initiative as a “long overdue” improvement and the town is just waiting for the architect to present a final estimate, preliminarily set at $700,000.
Gates, who chairs the building committee, has a staff of 39 officers and four civilians crammed into the building. A 1996 capital plan set a new police station as the town’s top priority, he said, but in the years since then attention has been paid to schools, and fire stations that are currently not in use.
“You can see what a priority it was,” he said, sarcastically.
Middleborough police have prepared a 30-minute video tour of the station that shows some of its shortcomings. Records are stored in an attic, for example, whose only access is up an old wooden ladder through the locker room ceiling.
There, boxes of waterlogged documents sit aside old courtroom chandeliers, as well as a big mass of wires that power the computer system. The temperature in this area can reach 170 degrees in summer, said Lieutenant David M. Mackiewicz, who led part of the tour in the video. In winter, temperatures mirror the outside, he said, pointing out gaps in the eaves.
Civilians also travel through the department’s private, administrative area to get firearm and other permits, officers pointed out. The dispatch area is jammed with excess equipment and chairs, and in an evidence storage area police patrol bicycles are stacked in a holding cell near snow salt and janitorial supplies.
The department’s computer server sits next to emergency bottles of oxygen. Piles of no parking signs in the garage are stacked near a washer and dryer set, a wealth of tools, police motorcycles and ATVs, and an eclectic array of lost-and-found items, including a trombone in a case.
Officials said the visuals easily make the case of why a modern station is critical to the department’s work.
To see the police station’s interior, go to www.middleboroughpolice.com and click on a link titled “Video Tour.”