Pittsfield Police Officer Protects, Serves And Recognizes Signs Of Trauma

Dec 14, 2018

When I asked the leaders of the "Trauma-Informed Berkshires" campaign which police officer has come closest to their key goal — understanding the effects of trauma in the community — they all pointed me to one person: Darren Derby. 

And that's why I wasn't really expecting officer Derby to start our day together quite so ...police-y.

“If something were ever to happen to me,” Derby said, taking out a CB radio from the front seat of his cruiser, “you just say, hey, Officer Derby is down, and this is where we are.”

As part of my reporting on the county-wide trauma-awareness campaign, Derby invited me to join him on patrol — which is why I was sitting in his cruiser, wearing a bulletproof vest under my pleated jacket.

Derby is the only “community outreach" officer in action in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But he’s also a working cop, so he proceeded to show me how the cruiser lights and sirens work.

And sure enough, within moments of us pulling out of police headquarters, Derby got his first call of the day: report of a stolen car.

“All right,” he told his dispatcher, “I'll head there right now.”

As we headed to the address, it became clear that Derby — after 17 years on the force, and an active presence on social media — is well-known among these rolling hills.

Officer Darren Derby on his way to routine police call.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR
"I get overwhelmed a lot. Some days, I have a breakdown, and I look like an emotional wreck. I'll cry. Uniform or no uniform, I don't care."
Darren Derby

“Good morning!” Derby called out to a woman waving from her lawn. “She follows me on Instagram. She'll probably message me within a couple minutes.”

Almost every moment Derby is not assigned a routine call, he's volunteering for charity, joking with kids, meeting people on the street and documenting it all online.

A recent Facebook sampling included a birthday celebration for a young woman with Downs Syndrome, passing out candy to area children, visiting a woman who’s trying to quit smoking.

Derby wishes he could always get to know the community in a low-stakes environment, but that’s not realistic, he pointed out, as he drove to the address of the suspected car theft.

When we arrived, a woman was sitting on a large rock in the driveway. Derby approached her gingerly.

How are you feeling?” he said. “You look nervous.”

“Not too good,” she responded.

Within a few minutes, Derby and another officer figured out it was family dispute -- a woman accused of stealing her sister’s car.

“I was in the car for like ten minutes -- not even,” she said.

“Why would you do that?” Derby asked.

“I was frustrated,” she said.

When Derby asked about drug use, she told him, “It has nothing to do with addiction, I'll tell you that. I'm not doing drugs.”

Officer Darren Derby investigates a car theft.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

After the woman's mother and sister showed up, she got more agitated. Derby remained calm and she was willing to engage with him.

“You're at rock bottom?” he asked.

“I’ve been at rock bottom for longer than I can remember,” she said.

'Understand the trauma that the child has gone through'

At 40, Darren Derby is tall, fit, and bald, with a dimpled smile and outgoing nature. For his first decade as a police officer, his goal was fairly basic: protect and serve. 

“If you were to ask me this four years ago, if I were interested in doing community outreach,” he said, “to be frank, my answer would have been ‘no.’”

He was doing traffic stops, getting drunk drivers off the road. But then came the police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities. Derby, who is white, understood the outrage, but also felt all police were being tainted by the actions of a few. 

“You started seeing people driving down the road,” he said, “and you wave and say ‘Hi,’ [but] they'll give you the finger or swear at you or yell vulgarities, comments that were just disheartening and it almost made you not human.”

So Derby started looking for ways to connect with the community, especially young people. He would drop in at schools. On one visit, he approached a table of third-graders eating the free breakfast, and offered a few fist bumps. But one of them turned his back to Derby.

“I said, ‘Hey man, what's going on? What's your name?’ [And the boy said] ‘I ain't talking to you.’ ‘OK, well why not?’ ‘I ain't talking to you because my father said that all cops do is go around and shoot black people with their hands up.’” 

Derby tried again the next day, and the day after that. At some point, he realized the boy's father was in jail, and that explained a lot.

“It's not his fault for thinking that way,” Derby said. “And I've started realizing that you really need to understand the trauma that the child has gone through before maybe helping them and fixing the problem.”

It took two years of Derby getting nowhere at that breakfast table “for [the boy] to finally, when he was having a bad day at school and I was called to the school, and I said ‘Would you like to talk? ‘Yeah, I want to talk.’”

'Sometimes it feels like she's there guiding me'

When I first asked to spend the day with Derby, he hadn’t heard of the “Trauma-Informed Berkshires” campaign, organized by the Berkshire United Way and other community leaders. But he seemed to follow its key principle: Give people the benefit of the doubt, because you don't know what they've been through.

Derby said he first learned this philosophy from Oprah Winfrey, who spoke about trauma on TV.

And like Winfrey, Derby is open about the trauma he went through as a child.

“My mother had severe mental illness, multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar, severe depression,” he said.

More than once, Derby said, she tried to kill him. Like the night she had a psychotic break “and put a screwdriver through a half-inch thick oak door through my bedroom, yelling obscenities at me.”

“You can envision a child sitting there in a fetal position, hands over their head, kind of like, ‘I want to be hidden,’” Derby said. “At first, I think I used to do that, and then it was normal. It became normalcy.”

And yet, despite years of this, he remained close to his mother until her death, a few years ago.

“It's almost like she's with me when I'm dealing with people with suffering from a mental illness,” he said. “And sometimes I feel like it feels like she's there guiding me.”

'She's not just a bad person ... She was brought to her breaking point'

I had to wonder if Derby was thinking about his mother when we were on the call about the stolen car.

“Are you currently seeking at psychological care?” he asked the suspect. Not lately, she said.

After it became clear that the woman was not violent, Derby decided against an arrest, and just talked to her.

“We’re all human. We go through stress. We have breakdowns,” he said. “I've been frustrated [myself] but I’ve learned to talk to somebody.”

At one point, Derby took the suspect's sister aside, and asked when the woman’s problem behavior began. The sister blamed it on an abusive boyfriend; Derby nodded knowingly.

Eventually, the woman agreed to go get counseling — that day. She declined Derby’s offer of a ride, but promised she wouldn’t change her mind.

When Derby got back in the cruiser, I asked him what would have happened if a different officer were in charge, someone who doesn't see things through the lens of trauma and mental illness.

She might have gone to jail, he said, and things might have escalated.

“We have to make split second decisions right, no doubt,” Derby said, thinking about officers who might not immediately feel empathy for a troubled suspect. “Sometimes it's just not in our human nature, it's not in our makeup.”

But his own life experience gives him a different perspective, he said.

“She's not just a bad person who went and stole a car,” Derby said. “There's something else to it. She was brought to her breaking point, which every human has. She didn't know how to release the stress, she didn’t know how to relieve her frustration, so she thought the next best thing was: ‘I'm going to take her car.’ And she did."

'You just give them a little bit of hope ... and a lot of kids don't get that'

After the car theft, we headed to a Pittsfield elementary school. Derby was back in community outreach mode.

When he entered the school, the kids acted as though they'd seen a movie star — calling out his name, asking to be on his Snapchat account, and just wanting to be near him.

“Can I please hug you?” one boy asked. “Please, please, please.”

“Listen, if you hug me, then everybody else [will want to],” Derby joked, but then came up with a solution. “I tell you what. Here we go down the line.”

Officer Darren Derby hugs a line of kids, at their request.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Derby hugged about a dozen fourth-graders, until their teacher handed him an envelope with a class donation. It was for one of Derby’s community projects — Operation Copsicle — in which Derby drives an ice cream truck around Pittsfield neighborhoods and hands out treats.

“For all you do for the community,” Derby read from the card. “Well, thank you very much!”

As we left the school, through another friendly gauntlet of kids calling out "Bye, Mr. Police!" Derby had a thought.

“Where does it go wrong?” he said, with some exasperation. “Like, why do they end up going in a different direction?”

He was thinking about that third-grader he befriended at the lunch table. Derby lost touch when he went to middle school, and now he hears his name on the police scanner. There's also a pair of brothers Derby's trying to keep out of juvenile court.

Sometimes he tells the kids what he went through as a child. Sometimes he just listens.

“You just give them a little bit of hope,” he said, “and you sit down, maybe you do the shoulder tap thing, you put your hand on your shoulder. They just feel that physical being, you know. And a lot of kids — they don't get that.”

Officer Darren Derby goofs around with elementary school children.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Derby and his wife decided not to have kids of their own; there's just no time. He said his community outreach comes on top of regular police work, and his boss confirmed that.

“He does everything that he is supposed to do as a police [officer],” said Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn. “Some of his colleagues would dispute that and say they have to handle some of his calls sometimes, and that's probably true,” Wynn conceded.

But he added that Derby's work in the community prevents harder police work down the line.

“I think he's taught us a lot of things about what is possible when you don't just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again,” he said.

'Some days I have a breakdown ... I'll cry. Uniform or no uniform'

Eight hours into his shift, Derby was still meeting strangers — including a group of young men in a parking lot with car trouble. After Derby determined they didn’t need his help, he called out of his cruiser with a laugh, “That’s what you get for buying an import!”

A lot of people ask Derby where he gets his emotional stamina. As a police officer, he’s been at suicides and violent assaults. In his community outreach, he sees poverty and domestic abuse. 

“It does get frustrating. I get overwhelmed a lot,” he said. “Some days, I have a breakdown, and I look like an emotional wreck. I'll cry. Uniform or no uniform, I don't care.”

He occasionally goes to a therapist — the same one his mother used to see.

“And I'm sure after this lengthy interview I will probably — I don't sugarcoat it — I will probably need a couple of screws tightened. We all need to kind of just have a reset,” he said.

That’s why Derby was preparing to take his first time off in more than a year: a cruise to Bermuda, at his wife's behest.

Last time they went on a cruise, he spent most of his vacation helping the local police department put up a basketball net for kids. I wanted to know if, this time, his wife told him to just relax at the swimming pool.

“She did,” he admitted. “And I didn't listen.”

So Derby was planning to bring a supply of soccer balls to start a community youth team. And then, he promised, he’d go to the pool.

This story is part of a reporting series on how one community is addressing trauma. Find all the stories here.