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Barbalunga, Harrington Talk Racial Justice at South County Forum
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:11PM / Wednesday, August 24, 2022
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Andrea Harrington, running for re-election as district attorney, and sheriff candidate Alf Barbalunga, attending remotely, speak at a racial justice candidate forum in Great Barrington on Monday.

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — District Attorney candidate Andrea Harrington and Sheriff candidate Alf Barbalunga discussed racial justice at a forum held by the Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education, known as BRIDGE.

On Monday, the candidates discussed equity from independent and office-wide standpoints at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center.

"We really want to keep the conversation going in the sense of accountability, really to historical and current issues and law enforcement and public safety in Berkshire County," BRIDGE founder and CEO Gwendolyn VanSant said. 

She clarified that DA candidate Timothy Shugrue and incumbent sheriff Thomas Bowler were also invited to the event but were not able to attend. They were given the opportunity to provide written answers to the questions.

BRIDGE asks people to think about racial justice in four areas: internally, interpersonally, culturally, and institutionally.

Harrington believes that her role in advancing racial justice is multi-faceted. She has found that over the last 3 1/2 years, she can have the biggest impact on the things that her office controls and wishes to lead by example.

Addressing racial disparities across the criminal legal system requires all pieces of the system to be working toward the same goal, she added, highlighting the office's work with The Wilson Center at Duke University to limit racial disparities in prosecution.

"We can lead by example, and I believe that we lead by a very powerful example in interrogating the way that prosecutors analyze our cases and the way that we prosecute our cases," Harrington said.

She highlighted the office's racial justice group led by retired Superior Court Judge Tina Page and work done around supporting vulnerable victims who are Black, brown, or immigrant who have been historically oppressed by the legal system.

Barbalunga said racial justice is "pretty basic" and spoke of the need to treat detainees and employees equitably.

"One, if you're an inmate or detainee, male or female, at that institution, you will be treated fairly and equitably, regardless of race, gender, so that's first and primary with our team," he explained. "Secondly, if you're an employee at that office, you're going to be treated equitably as well, regarding any race factor."

The candidate acknowledged that minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and incarcerated and said the county is fortunate to have a DA that has made efforts to reduce discriminatory prosecutorial practices.

Barbalunga, on leave as chief probation office for the Southern Berkshire District, also pointed to the two cultural diversity awards he has received in the last three years.

The two candidates were asked to reflect on a time when they missed an opportunity or made a professional error around racial justice or equity work.

Over the years, Harrington has learned that the work is more than just creating a diverse staff.

"We have worked very hard to improve the diversity of the staff and the district attorney's office and we've had success with that. If you look at the percentages in terms of Berkshire County as a whole, Berkshire County is 86 percent white, you compare that to the percentage of the office, which is about 76 percent white, so we don't have old statistics to compare to, but we can compare ourselves to the population of Berkshire County so our diversity is better than what we see here in Berkshire County in the general population," she said.

"But what I found as a manager is that recruiting a diverse staff is really just the first step and the smaller step really is working on creating a culture of inclusion within the office and working on pretension. I think that was something that I have a lot savvier to now than I was when I first started in this position. And we have worked with some really great experts in terms of how we ensure that our workplace is both inclusive and equitable, but that's ongoing work all the time that we all you know, have to be diligent at."

She added that there have been some missteps in the office in terms of ensuring that people feel like they're being treated equitably and inclusively.

Barbalunga said he has probably made a lot of mistakes in his 30-plus year career but the greatest one is a human service issue.

"Sometimes I've been known — if we have an employee that's not performing after multiple chances and trainings and retrainings and things of that nature — to carry that employee continue it," he explained.

"Because we have empathy for life obviously and you never want to see somebody separated from their employment, especially in government and bureaucracy, it's a tough road with unions and things of that nature. However, that's definitely a mistake I've made where I haven't cut the cord soon enough where it's adversely affected the office and that's not fair to all the employees as well. That's what it comes down to."

He said he wished he gained the skills to do this earlier in his career but at the end of the day, feels he has gotten there.

"I'm an effective manager. On those rare occasions, I know how to take care of it and, unfortunately, create a better team with less people," Barbalumga said.

The candidates were also asked what the DA and sheriff's offices can do to remove extremists and supremacist persons from the law enforcement community.

Harrington explained that her office has developed a Brady policy — keeping a list of officers who's credibility could undermine a case — and has asked local police chiefs to proactively report officers who exhibit biased policing and untruthfulness.

"We have received information on this kind we do consider it and we will put officers on a Brady list which means that we have to disclose that information to the defense," she added.

The DA is on the U.S. Attorney's Civil Rights Task Force and is the co-chair of the Law Enforcement Committee. The office also had training for civil rights officers across the state on addressing civil rights, hate crimes, and bias.

"The base tool that I have to have any kind of you know, bearing over individual police officers is around using our Brady list, prosecuting case officers for crimes," she concluded.

"When we see concerning police reports we can't necessarily act on them under those two categories. We bring them to the attention of the police chiefs and we have frank and honest conversations but I think that we're gonna be doing more of that in the next term and potentially some more formal type programming."

Barbalunga said undocumented extremist ideologies have been known to happen in the Department of Corrections and House of Corrections facilities.  

"What you do is you have a reasonably robust internal affair-type of division, and you monitor that type of behavior, and that also includes monitoring social media activities from the employees," he explained. "And if you see something that, you know, maybe going in the wrong direction, you take action."

Harrington was asked about her office's independent investigation of the police killing of Miguel Estrella in March, which found that the shooting officer acted lawfully.

"The reality is that the young people who were trying to help Miguel were looking for medical help. They were looking for an ambulance. He indicated that he was feeling suicidal and they were looking for help from medical response so this is a tough case from my office. It's a tough case for the city of Pittsfield and for the community at large," she explained.

"What I found is, as I said earlier, I really can have the biggest impact on the things that I control. I wanted this investigation to be such that it could inform a community discussion around how do we all unpack this, look at what went wrong and how can we improve as a community moving forward and that takes people from all different parts of our community."

Harrington said it will take the mental health community, the city, legislators, and the DA's office to come up with better solutions and that there needs to be non-law enforcement options for mental health crises as well as options that include law enforcement in situations that could turn dangerous.

Barbalunga was asked about racial justice training, which he said was "critical" and that he would mandate implicit bias training.

"That's an eye opener for many in the community and in employment areas like this," he said. "And they're comfortable for sure and there's reasons for that, but those are the conversations that need to happen."

The candidates also discussed broader topics that often tie in with racial justice such as mental health and gender identity.

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