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New chief builds on past, looks to future

“I always knew I wanted to be a police officer,” newly appointed Police Chief Jim Babu told the Select Board during his interview last month for the chief’s position. He repeated that statement in a recent interview with the Press in which he talked about both his own career and his plans for the Harvard Police Department.

Chief Jim Babu.(Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

In some ways, it seems surprising that Babu chose to become a police officer, as one of his own early encounters with police was definitely negative. Before he and his family came to the United States from Romania, Babu lived in Bucharest. When he was 9 or 10 years old, he was riding his bike to a city park when he encountered a heavily armed policeman. The officer slashed the tires on young Babu’s bicycle with a bayonet. Babu said the incident still resonates with him after all these years.

Babu came to this country in 1982 with his mother and his two older sisters. His father had already immigrated a few years earlier.

A dozen years or so later, when Babu started taking classes at Bridgewater State University, some police officers who also attended the school suggested he sign up with one of their departments. He took their advice, and in 1994 he became an auxiliary officer in Abington—a part-time job he continued to hold for six years while also attending college. (At some points, Babu held three part-time jobs while still working toward his degree.)

An eventful ride-along

One hot summer night, Babu recalled, an Abington officer invited him on a ride-along, and Babu accepted. “[We] got into a crazy case with a stolen vehicle and a high speed chase, pursuit, and all sorts of stuff,” he said. “It was like something out of the movies.” The other officers told him it certainly wasn’t like that every day, but he was hooked. “Yep—I think I like this!” he decided.

After more than 25 years of experience, however, Babu now has a much broader view of policing, well beyond the adrenaline rush of a car chase. A majority of calls to the Harvard police, Babu said, involve mental health issues. Early in his career, Babu spent two years working part time with the Department of Mental Health Police in Brockton, so it’s an issue he knows well.

Currently, the Harvard and Stow police departments are taking part in a grant-funded program that will let them share a co-clinician responder from the Department of Mental Health, a state agency. As many reformers have urged, the clinician can ride along with an officer when needed. Beyond dealing with an immediate crisis, Babu said, the program also calls for follow-up to see that a person or family can get additional help.

Another new resource for the Harvard police comes through the Worcester County district attorney’s office. That office’s Critical Incident Management System works in partnership with local police on substance abuse cases, using funds from a 2020 federal grant. The goal is to be sure that anyone who takes an overdose can speak with a counselor the next day. Babu says 74% of overdose survivors choose to enter the program, which also provides follow-up with families.

“Police are doing more than policing,” Babu said. “And we need help.”

Staffing needs, training, and certification requirements

The Police Department’s biggest need right now is staffing, according to the new chief. Babu would like to have two more officers to make sure all shifts are well covered.

In his 18 years with the department, Babu said only one officer has left for a police job in another town. He attributed that high retention rate to the department’s team spirit—“Pride, unity, and purpose in what we do.” And he wants to be sure any new hires will fit in with that culture. “We’re very picky,” he said with a smile.

One departmental benefit that helps retain good officers, Babu said, is the chance to take specialized training and professional courses. It’s a way of keeping the job interesting, and he wants to make sure all Harvard officers have the opportunity to take such courses.

Babu himself has become a specialist in several areas. He has been part of a regional accident reconstruction team since being certified for that position in 2007. On one occasion, he had to analyze four deadly crashes that had taken place within 11 hours.

For the past two years, Babu has also served on a regional drone team with CEMLEC (Central Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council). Last July, police used a drone to search for an elderly man who was reported missing in a wooded area of Harvard. In a joint grant application, the Harvard police and the Fire Department acquired a drone just a week ago.

One of Babu’s most immediate goals is getting everyone in the Harvard department to meet the June deadline for certification by the state standards that went into effect last year under the new Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission.

Like 46 other states, Massachusetts now has a mandatory process for certifying—or decertifying—police officers. The certification standards set new policies and require additional training in everything from use of force to processing a crime scene. For example, Babu said, the old use-of-force policy was seven pages long; the new one is much more detailed and runs to 39 pages. An officer’s certification will have to be renewed every three years.

Traffic and juvenile cases are local issues

For Harvard residents, Babu said, traffic is the issue he hears about most often. In response, he hopes to purchase two new radar trailers. These mobile units display the speed limit and tell drivers their own speed, but they also contain a computer that records traffic speed and volume at various times of day. The data helps police know when and where to focus enforcement.

Connections to the schools are another important part of community policing. Harvard police have “a great relationship” with the schools, Babu said, adding that former Police Chief Ed Denmark “made it real easy for me.”

In dealing with juveniles, Babu explained, “I don’t believe in just prosecuting everybody.” He noted that all three of the young people involved in the recent mailbox vandalism could have been charged with felonies. “But what would that do long term?” he asked. “It would hurt them … from going to school, from getting financial aid.”

Babu said he was more concerned with accountability. “They admitted to it-—they took full responsibility,” he said. The culprits must write letters of apology to those whose mailboxes were damaged and reimburse them for the costs, in accord with the idea of restorative justice. Diverting juveniles from wrongdoing and keeping them out of the court system, he said, is also the philosophy of the state’s 2018 Juvenile Justice Reform Act.

Recalling the policing he’s seen in neighborhoods where he has lived--—from Bucharest to the Bronx and Brockton—Babu observed, “The police response is definitely very different depending on where you live. … And that’s unfortunate. … And to say that there’s no issue there is really false.” Later in the conversation he returned to the issue of equity in policing. Summing up the range of social issues police deal with, he urged, “Don’t defund the police, augment the police by using social and mental health workers for assistance.”

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