The Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council hosted a reception on Dec. 4 to honor and hear perspectives from Concord Police Chief Joseph O’Connor, who retires at the end of the month. Community members cozied up at the Fenn School library where O’Connor shared his personal reflections on his career and the changing trends he’s witnessed in his 36 years in law enforcement.
O’Connor began policing on Cape Cod in 1986, where he first encountered individuals with substance use disorders. He shared that while law enforcement was focused on waging a “war on drugs,” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, perspectives have shifted dramatically since then toward ending stigma and providing help for those with mental health and substance use disorders.
He later worked in Winchester, the town where he was raised, and described the “eye-opening” experience of going into the homes of people he grew up alongside and seeing the challenges they faced behind closed doors.
In 1990, O’Connor moved to the MBTA transit police in Boston. He called his 24-year tenure there “remarkable” in that he encountered a rich variety of people. The transit police at that time were focused on addressing crime, disorder and terrorism, he said.
O’Connor recalled the marathon bombing in 2013 as “one of the worst weeks” in his career. He transitioned to Concord the following year, and said he felt grateful for the opportunity to lead the department here.
“It’s a special community and it stands and is symbolic for democracy and everything the country stands for,” he said. “We were able to accomplish a lot with very talented staff of officers and dispatchers here in town that were open to things I felt were important; to get back to people, to problem-solve, to build upon different partnerships.”
The department used the concept of “restorative justice” under his leadership to bring those who were harmed together with those who caused harm, O’Connor explained. They incorporated the use of body cameras after the murder of Michael Brown to promote transparency and “show that we were listening.” O’Connor also shared that police officers in Concord receive training in diversity and mental health topics, and that the department had its first all-female shift of officers this year.
Community members asked the chief about his perspectives on gun ownership, use of active-shooting drills in schools and rising instances of hate-related crime in the country. He stressed the importance of communication in ensuring public safety in his answers.
“If you see something, say something,” he said. “I think the way you continue to address those things is that when something happens, people call it out… Communication is the solution to everything.”
O’Connor also stressed that, to him, policing is about relationships. “[People think] it’s about running, chasing people and so forth, but at the core of it, it’s helping people and spending time with them and trying to solve their problems… We always try to bring that back to the core of what we do.”
O’Connor will retire on the Cape with his wife in January in a move he called “full circle.” Captain Thomas Mulcahy, a 22-year veteran of the Concord Police Department, will serve as Interim chief of police.