Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes is keen on training the next generation of aspiring law enforcement professionals. When he’s lecturing before a new criminal justice class at Bunker Hill Community College, he likes to introduce himself with this question: “In my 30 years on the job, how often do you think I’ve fired my weapon? I’ve been a patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, detective and now police chief, all in a challenging urban environment.”
Students raise their hands, make various guesses, and inevitably, says Kyes, someone has the correct answer: “You have never fired your gun.” And that’s true for most police officers, Kyes says. “Most cops go through their career and never fire a single round. The reality is that deadly force is a last resort.”
Kyes, 53, oversees more than 100 officers in one of the oldest police departments in the nation. He was trained — and rose through the ranks — when police officers were viewed as authoritative figures who rode around in squad cars.
Today, he’s a believer in community policing. Kyes uses social media (he has 2,500 Twitter followers) to leverage public support and broaden intelligence-gathering. Some sample tweets: “CPD looking for a dark colored newer model Toyota — possibly Camry.” “Deceased body found floating in Chelsea River.”
Policing in Chelsea is unique, says Kyes, because it’s a heavily congested area — just over 2 square miles — but has all the complexities of a major inner city, with issues including violent crime, prostitution and drugs, as well as a significant population of undocumented residents.
Kyes, who is also a practicing attorney and president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs Association, has seen the city struggle for decades with political corruption, crime, and high unemployment. But he loves living there. “This city is so familiar to me, I can look and see a fence hanging off a post, or some pile of debris that doesn’t look right, and I know something is off-kilter,” says Kyes.
He spoke with the Globe about what it’s like to be a police chief in a diverse community.
“I grew up in Chelsea and went through the school system here. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a job, so I tagged along with a friend who was taking the police exam. I decided to try being a local cop for a few years to see what would happen. This was in the ’80s, when Chelsea was dealing with a lot of cocaine and violent crime.
“At the time, there were only three of us on the force with a college degree. I went to school at night to earn my master’s degree in criminal justice, and got promoted to sergeant and three years later to lieutenant. I then decided to go to law school, all the while studying to become captain. I was a little young when I pursued the police chief job — at the time I was 42 — and was lucky enough to get the position.
“I try to lead from the top. The younger officers see me walking down in Bellingham Square — which has its share of addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless — with my full uniform on, accountable and approachable, and they see that’s exactly how it should be done. The most effective tool any officer has is the ability to communicate with all facets of the population and establish rapport and relationships.
“A true story that demonstrates this: I was being chased by armed gang members that were just about to jump me. One of them, a young man I had previously helped out, recognized me and literally saved my life. He told the gang to back away, giving just enough time for my partner to show up and gain control. Prayers are great, but it’s better to be proactive, and that means treating people with respect and dignity. That’s a huge shift from 30 years ago, when I was a young cop and was told, ‘I don’t ever want to see you get out of the car.’
“I have a lot of demands in the city, but my job also pulls me to the State House, where I’m involved in various legislation. Recently, I was at the Convention Center on a panel talking about opioids, and later discussing homeland security.
“The thing is, cops get a bad rap because whenever there’s a negative incident, all police officers get painted with a bad brush. We pay the price in this public service job. When someone’s speeding down the road and gets a citation, the cop is a referee. And no one likes a referee. We’re not like firefighters, always saving the day. But that comes with the territory.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at email@example.com.