Weighing Winston: APD comfort dog brings joy, increases police presence at school

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    Winston the comfort dog at the police station Photo: Instagram
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    Ruthie Weinbaum and Ada Demling, posing with Winston Photo: Ada Demling

It’s 8:45 a.m. and students are filing in the main doors at ARHS. But some stop traffic when they see an impossibly cute and uplifting sight: Winston, the Amherst Police Department’s comfort dog. On September 10, 2020, the chocolate English Labrador retriever was sworn in and ten months later, he is a local celebrity, complete with his own Instagram, @winstonapdmacomfortdog.

Winston works with Officer William Laramee in his role as a neighborhood liaison officer. This position, created in 2015, was designed to act as a bridge between local colleges and the Amherst community, and involves “partnership and problem-solving.” 

For example, after an incident involving college students—such as a noise complaint made by a neighbor about a fraternity—Laramee would enter the scene, learn what occurred and why, and help develop a relationship between both parties to prevent the incident from happening again.

After seeing an increase in the use of dogs in “non-intense K9 roles,” Laramee got in touch with Officer Brad McNamara of the Lunenburg Police Department and his therapy dog partner Hank, who recommended Boonefield Labradors in southern New Hampshire, Hank’s breeder. Boonefield Labradors specializes in dogs with “mellow temperaments,” having bred four generations of therapy and comfort dogs. Upon hearing from Laramee, they donated Winston to the APD to continue his family’s legacy. 

A typical day in Winston’s life starts out with visiting either ARHS or Fort River Elementary School, where young children can’t get enough of him. 

“It would blow your mind to see kids get off the bus,” said Laramee. “They swarm him.” At lunch, Laramee and Winston will walk into town to get a bite to eat and greet community members. In the afternoon, Winston might join the town’s COVID-19 ambassadors as they do outreach work and enforce social distancing. 

Winston has been to Mercy Medical Center in Springfield a few times to brighten the days of staff and patients, though his ability to take part in such visits has been limited by the pandemic. Laramee noted that many of Winston’s positive encounters with the community are small enough to “[not] ever make the news,” but they add up to “benefit Amherst in a big way.”

But in the midst of a national epidemic of police brutality and active calls to defund police—including among the ARHS student body—some are suspicious of a dog like Winston being used to increase police presence in places where they might not normally be found.

When Laramee first visited Fort River Elementary, children would question why a police officer was at their school. Laramee said that Winston does soften the nervousness some people feel around police and helps accomplish his goal of making people “more trusting of police in the future,” which Laramee believes allows him to better serve his community.

For these reasons, he also wears plain clothes rather than a police uniform while at work, though he carries a police-issued firearm, “a requirement of all of our officers while in the performance of our duties.”

“All these conversations I’m able to have with people that I wouldn’t have had otherwise [are] really because of Winston doing what he does,” Laramee said. 

At ARHS, police are normally only present when there is an active problem, but Laramee said Winston’s presence allows officers to “play more of a passive and constant role” to build relationships with students. “The hope would be, maybe next fall, we could actually be more of a presence in the schools like walking the halls or visiting the classrooms,” Laramee said.

But Chicago-based ARHS grad Benji Hart—who is an author, artist, educator, and police and prison abolitionist—isn’t a fan. Hart said that it’s problematic that the “stated goal” of police is rebuilding trust and increasing visibility.

“It’s about their own PR and rehabilitating their own image, not about students’ needs. If there was no national conversation happening about the usefulness of police and defunding them, Winston and police would not be on school property,” said Hart, who also questioned why “resources of care have to be tied to or provided by police, and not other bodies with a less violent and racist history.”

2017 ARHS grad Shannon Lambert, who co-runs the Instagram page @amherstpolicereport, agrees. She feels that Winston is “super cute” but she said his presence doesn’t “address any of the underlying causes or problems” that have led to calls to defund the police. 

As an example, Lambert brought up homelessness. She wants much of the police budget to be diverted “towards actually helping homeless people with housing, food, public restrooms, and mental health resources.” 

Interestingly, Laramee said he’s “all for” intersecting Winston’s work with potential community responders to calls that don’t require traditional policing, and that he would “welcome that type of help in going to some of those calls.” 

Since Winston was a donation to the department, he said the only expenses related to him are his basic necessities and training fees, so the cost is low compared to the benefit of the work he does.

Though initially ARHS student Ada Demling felt that it was “sort of weird” to see a police officer at ARHS every morning, Winston quickly won her over, since she sees him more as an ambassador of love and kindness than anything else.

“I would sit outside giving [Winston] belly rubs all morning if I could,” Demling said, adding, “It’s nice to pet a dog to set the tone for the day.” 

2020 ARHS grad Owen Toal supports the APD’s use of Winston. He is studying at Holyoke Community College and aims to become a police officer, though he will begin his “first response career with some firefighting starting in a few weeks.” For his recent birthday, he fundraised for Winston’s training, collecting over $500.

“I think that community outreach and community policing units can contribute a lot towards earning the community’s trust back in the police,” said Toal.

Toal said that if he had experienced a traumatic event, “seeing a kind and playful dog like Winston would brighten up [his] day just a little almost instantly.” 

Toal said he supports the model of policing that the APD wants to adopt, where one side of the department responds to “stereotypical police scenarios such as a burglary [or] a drunk driver,” and the other side, including Winston, acts “as a counselor and [tries] to figure out what resources a person might need.”

In the meantime, Winston is working towards a Canine Good Citizen certification, and then he will move on to certified therapy dog training. 

His training is mostly obedience-based right now, and he has completed a puppy kindergarten course. After he has mastered obedience, he will “learn how to respond to someone experiencing trauma.” 

Next, he will see an animal behaviorist who will tell Laramee what kind of work Winston’s skill set would be best for, either as a comfort dog equipped to provide love and support to anyone in distress at the police station, or as simply a community outreach dog. 

“We’ll go where he leads us,” said Laramee.