This article focuses on the physical condition of the current station and specific improvements of the proposed new building. In our June 4 newsletter, we plan to report on the Town’s approach to funding this project and the status of plans for the future of the Hosmer House. If you have any other questions about the upcoming June 6 debt exclusion that you think we should report on, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the evidence room, dozens of boxes sit crammed onto shelves all the way up to the ceiling. That’s the only way to make everything fit in the storage closet space.
In one corner of the interview room, a couple of ceiling tiles are patched brown with damp; below, a crack runs along that wall.
And if you venture to the cells on the bottom floor of the station (you’d take the stairs, because there’s no elevator), you’d see one of them is labeled with a piece of paper saying it must not be used to house prisoners – because, by necessity, it’s been converted into overflow storage space.
Those aren’t the only reasons Lexington needs a new police station. They’re not even the most important ones. But they’re some of the more evocative details from a tour Thursday of a department making the best of visibly tight and tired quarters. In the words of Captain of Administration John Mazerall: “Every nook and cranny, every crawlspace, we’re using now. We don’t have one closet that’s just empty holding clothes.”
1575 Massachusetts Avenue isn’t just outdated for a police station; it’s a well maintained but fairly worn down building which the Town has been working to replace since at least 2011. Built in 1956, it mostly housed town offices before the growing force “took over the whole building,” Mazerall said. At 13,060 square feet, the building is little over a third of what the new building would be at roughly 34,000 square feet, per architect Jeff McElravy’s March presentation to Town Meeting. (As a refresher, Town Meeting voted almost unanimously in approval of authorizing $32.4 million for design and construction of the new police station this spring, but that vote is subject to approval in a town-wide debt exclusion vote scheduled for June 6, in about two weeks.)
Chief Michael McLean knows some in town balk at the proposed building’s size. But for communities the size of Lexington – with around 33,000 residents and 70+ police department staff including 50 officers – a police station with the new dimensions is pretty typical, according to McElravy, who specializes in designing public safety facilities for Tecton Architects and has designed the proposed new building for Lexington. “There are gives and takes through every program area, but the result is you are very much comparable to other towns of similar size,” McElravy wrote in an email. Lexington, for instance, has more planned indoor garage space than some departments because it has “no secure, fenced in, parking area that is restricted from public access.” On the other hand, it has “less dedicated patrol area, owing to the fact that your department is already comfortable with sharing the break room with the patrol briefing room.”
It’s also critical to understand that about 4,000 square feet of the current project were added in direct response to community feedback through an extensive input process (as previously reported) – from a larger, more welcoming lobby, to space for mental health workers, to a de-escalation training room. Simply put: The community input process has enlarged the proposed project, rather than shrinking it. And McLean believes the additions will only enhance the quality of the work the department does, he said: “It’s a better product in the end, having the community involvement….It makes us more efficient and better serve the community.“
That’s the heart of the Lexington police leadership’s pitch to the community – to voters – on the need for this new building: Better space translates directly to better public safety. It’s a pitch bolstered by concrete examples for the skeptical, including, but not limited to:
Office space: For instance: What, you might ask, will more office space accomplish? Officers who need to have sensitive phone conversations will have the privacy to do so instead of being in a room with four other people separated by mere cubicle barriers. In another vein, administrative staff who are constantly at the mercy of foot traffic in the hall in the current building setup will have a less distracting space and be able to work more efficiently. The new building won’t just have more office space; it will restructure office space, integrating the detective and command staff offices with patrol officers, with everyone on the same floor rather than hierarchically split between the first and second floors. In a nutshell, everyone should have the space they need to do their best work. In the meantime, “we have people working on top of each other,” Mazerall said.
A welcoming lobby: A bigger lobby, with a conjoining community room and accessible gender-neutral bathrooms, creates a welcoming first impression for everyone coming into the station. “We found that everybody wanted a more inviting police department where they came in,” McLean recalled of the community input process. The new design reimagines the lobby as more of a community space, complete with “maybe some places to sit down to get out of the weather, maybe to charge your phone.” There’s space for safe Facebook marketplace exchanges, or even custody exchanges, as well as for a quiet, private conversation with an officer. People coming to the police station aren’t necessarily having their best days, McLean acknowledged – so an inviting lobby really matters.
De-escalation training room: From an internal standpoint, a de-escalation training room will allow officers to train more often. Currently, trainings in areas such as firearms and defensive tactics require a special trip off-site to an outdoor facility; an on-site space for de-escalation training will make it that much easier to just grab a couple of officers on shift and run a few simulations, Mazerall explained – not to mention removing weather variables. McLean concurred; “It gives us a 365-day-a-year, 24-hour access to an area with some simulation equipment that allows officers to go through real life scenarios that are based on use of force situations,” he said. “Having that, where we can run our officers through that multiple times a year, is only going to be better for the police department and for the community.” More training space could even have a financial benefit by allowing the department to get discounts for hosting trainings with third-party vendors open to other communities – and training officers on shift could save the department overtime pay.
Embedded social services, and wellness space: McLean has previously stressed his support for embedded social services; he believes this will make the biggest difference in that the same person can provide consistent followup, rather than longer-term support and monitoring being splintered among different people who might be less immersed in a person’s particular needs and history, he explained. A wellness room could be used for an officer who has been on a tough call, or an officer who needs privacy to breastfeed – or a victim or witness who needs to decompress, he said. Elements like wellness rooms “are little things right now that are part of the new professional policing that we want to get into,” McLean summarized.
Greater power insulation for dispatch: The new dispatch area, where 911 calls are fielded, will be designed to have its own self-contained power system separate from the rest of the building – an extra layer of protection to keep members of the public safe in the event of a catastrophic power failure.
Improved evidence processing: Think a kitchen is the only place you need counter space? Actually, it’s pretty important to have room for pieces of evidence of all shapes and sizes, too – which is why increased counter space is one of the improvements requested by officers in the new building’s evidence processing room.
An elevator: On top of increasing station accessibility, the addition of an elevator will greatly facilitate transporting heavy pieces of evidence upstairs.
Garage space: A covered garage will house around nine cars which are dispatched the most frequently and urgently – which is less than a third of the full fleet of police vehicles. The covered garage will allow them to be protected from the elements, be dispatched faster and last longer – and will be especially important looking to the future, when the department hopes to eventually transition to electric vehicles.
A fitness room: Among the additions the officers themselves are most excited about – the return of a fitness room. This is something that the department had to sacrifice years ago to increase desk space as they began squeezing every inch of available square footage. McLean says a fitness room will contribute to officer wellness – one of the six pillars of 21st century policing. What’s more, it’s not easy, locally, statewide or nationally, to attract and retain officers today – “so having a state of the art building is something that, in addition [to] better serving the community, [helps with] getting good officers and keeping them here,“ McLean explained.“ There’s an argument for fiscal responsibility even here – in theory, healthier officers mean “less strain on sick time and insurance.” Mazerall said the fitness room is something “all our young officers are very excited to see.” Officers are in the station anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week – “so their input was very important” alongside community feedback, McLean said.
Smoother sailing for accreditation: The current building makes it impossible for the LPD to be nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) — only state accreditation is currently attainable, and that gets more challenging every year, according to McLean and Mazerall. The department was very proud of being recently reaccredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission (MPAC), McLean said – but the building didn’t make it easy. The entry hallway for prisoners, for instance, is not ideal for officer or detainee safety because it involves passing doors rather than a totally secure hallway. This, too, has been addressed in the new building’s design.
Versatility: A design like this one not only accounts for current necessities, but is forward-looking and, in that sense, fiscally responsible, according to McLean. “The most important part of the plan is it gives us flexibility, because we don’t know where policing is going to be in, say 20 years,” he explained. The locker room walls, for instance, can be shifted in response to changes in the gender balance – meaning e.g. that the womens’ locker room could be made larger should more women join the force.
When he became Chief of Police this January, McLean reflected that policing is ever-changing. He returned to that reflection in describing the importance of a versatile building. “We have to anticipate that there will be [changes],” he said. “You don’t need to know what they’re going to be…you just need to know that there’s definitely going to be changes, and the building just can’t be stuck…[whereas] we’re kind of stuck right here with what we have.”
“We’ve always…been proud of the fact that we’ve done more with less,” McLean added.