Northampton City Council votes to cut police budget by 10% 

  • Participants in Thursday’s City Council meeting via Zoom hold up signs.

  • Participants in Thursday’s Northampton City Council meeting via Zoom hold up signs. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Jeffrey Staples, a Northampton Police Department officer, on Main Street in Northampton during his shift Friday, June 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Police Officer Hanna Jones patrols Main Street on foot Friday. The City Council rejected calls to cut the Police Department budget in half. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jeffrey Staples and Hanna Jones, Northampton Police Department officers, on Main Street in Northampton during their shifts, Friday, June 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Police Department officer Jeffrey Staples patrols Friday on Main Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hanna Jones and Jeffrey Staples, Northampton Police Department officers, on Main Street during their shifts Friday, June 19, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 9:47:51 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Police Department’s proposed $6.7 million budget is being slashed by 10% next fiscal year, a reduction that will result in layoffs, Police Chief Jody Kasper confirmed.

In a Thursday night Zoom meeting that ended after midnight, the council also discussed a detailed proposal to create a commission made up of residents to review the Police Department and suggest ways to change it, after a heated public comment session in which residents didn’t hold back.

“I’m a Black woman,” said Hayley Nicholas, a Ward 2 resident, who urged the council to cut the police budget in half, noting that the 0.28% cut the mayor initially approved “is a complete insult” and that he and the council “need to do better.”

The council’s meeting drew hundreds of people, many of whom held up handwritten signs bearing the same question: “Which side are you on?” One participant held up a sign saying, “You’ll be remembered for this.”

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore proposed the amendment to cut the Police Department budget by 10%, and it passed 6-3. Councilors Marianne LaBarge, Jim Nash and John Thorpe cast the dissenting votes on the amendment. 

The $669,957 cut comes from three line items — $146,252 from other than ordinary maintenance, $48,279 from operations and maintenance and $475,426 from personnel services — which leaves the department’s budget at a total $6,030,801.

Later in the meeting, the council approved the city’s approximately $100 million budget with the 10% cut to the police budget. It was the council’s second and final vote on the fiscal 2021 budget, which begins July 1. 

The cut came after protesters urged the council to cut the police budget by 50% as a step toward abolition. On Wednesday and Thursday, a caravan of demonstrators drove to councilors’ home around the city to pressure them into making that cut.

On Friday, Kasper was still working out the details of what the cut would mean for her department, personnel and operations.

“The significant reduction came from our personnel (staffing) budget, so I have been assessing how many police officers will need to be cut,” she said.

While she confirmed that “yes, this will result in layoffs,” she noted that “it would be premature to identify specific positions that will be cut at this stage of the budgeting process.”

Originally, Mayor David Narkewicz’s proposed budget for next fiscal year included a $193,579 increase in funding, much of it for contractual salary increases. Amid public pressure, he submitted a new proposal that instead cut the NPD’s budget by $19,000, or 0.28%, by purchasing two hybrid police cars instead of five.

Hundreds attended meetings earlier this month urging the council to make significant cuts to the Police Department’s budget, amid protests against racism and police violence around the country and world following the killing of George Floyd.

On Thursday night, the council spoke about the Police Department and its budget for several hours.

Nash, who represents Ward 3, said he agreed with protesters’ demands from the June 6 protest in the city — which included a call for a one-third reduction to the Police Department’s budget — but he said that without a plan or path forward, he wasn’t ready for a budget cut. “We as City Council sitting here tonight, we don’t have that plan in front of us,” he said.

Thorpe, who represents Ward 4, also emphasized the need for a plan. “I’m a person who likes to have a plan,” he said. In his ward, he said that he has heard both from people wanting a 50% cut and those who want to maintain the department’s funding.

“Ultimately this is, to me, not a referendum on the quality of the Northampton Police Department,” Maiore said. “We’ve heard how they do a lot of jobs other people can do. We’ve heard how the system itself is embedded with racism and bias and isn’t really ultimately cut out to keep all of us safe.”

She added, “I think Northampton is ideal for a mental health crisis response team,” referencing a crisis assistance program in Eugene, Oregon.

Reading from a statement he wrote, Ward 5’s Alex Jarrett said, “There is valuable work done by our police every day. I spent an hour with the chief yesterday and, while not perfect, it is functioning just as a Police Department should. And that’s the problem. There are limits to policing and about what we are asking police to do. We ask them to be experts in fields that they are not and to do jobs where the presence of armed officers actually makes the situations worse. A different solution is needed to our problems — in addition to police reform.”

He added, “I can’t in good conscience support a cut of the size that some are requesting, without alternatives in place.” Instead, he made a motion for a 15% cut to the budget.

That cut would result in layoffs of about 12 or 13 officers, Kasper said in response to Jarrett’s motion. “These arbitrary numbers feel very arbitrary without us really having an understanding about impact,” Kasper said of his proposed reduction. The department is open to change she said, but “we are not prepared to, in two weeks, cut 13 or 12 of our staff and still provide the city with services the way that we’ve been able to.”

Jarrett then said he needed more time to think about a reduction and withdrew his motion for a 15% cut. After more discussion, Maiore then made the motion to cut 10% of the budget, which later passed.

A call to review the police

Before the budget vote, Narkewicz presented a plan he and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra developed to form the Northampton Policing Review Commission, a joint special commission with the mayor and City Council.

“The Mayor and City Council are committed to initiating a sweeping public policy review and community conversation about policing and community safety,” Narkewicz said, reading a document detailing the proposal. “Northampton’s elected leaders are united in agreement that we are in a critical moment as a city and a nation that calls for profound structural change and must work together to identify and enact necessary reforms with deliberate speed and lasting impact.”

The commission, a group of 15 residents, would study the issues and recommend reforms to “the current organizational and oversight structures, municipal funding allocations, and policies and ordinances that together can transform how the city delivers policing services while ensuring community safety equitably and justly for all,” Narkewicz continued, reading from the proposal.

As it is proposed, the commission would look at department size, budget, use of force policies, recruitment and diversity policies, and reporting transparency, among other topics. It would also look at alternatives to current policing practices, and it would transition 911 calls related to mental health, homelessness and other noncriminal issues to civilian responders or social service agencies.

“We’re looking forward to a collaborative and thorough assessment of how public safety services can best be provided to our community,” Kasper said.

Both the City Council and the mayor’s office would get to choose the body’s members, which must be done before Aug. 20, and must include “8 members who are black, indigenous, people of color or from other historically marginalized communities who have been targeted and harmed by U.S. policing practices,” the proposal reads. They would file a preliminary report by Dec. 17 and a final report with recommendations by March 4, 2021 — more than two months before the fiscal 2022 city budget must be submitted. Financial resources for staff support or consulting would be given to the group.

“This is a very ambitious timeline that we have laid out — and a lot of work,” Sciarra said, “but this is a moment for informed but decisive action.”

Councilors expressed initial support for the plan, and the group decided to move discussion about it to a special meeting on June 23 at 5 p.m.

The public weighs in

At the start of the meeting, the council voted to limit the total public comment to two hours, a motion that passed 6-3. Councilors Jarrett, Maiore and Bill Dwight were the three “no” votes. They also limited the public to two minutes of speaking time, rather than the typical three.

Public comment lasted the full two hours.

Before the council voted in support of the 10% cut to the police budget, Florence resident Rebecca Steinquist asked for no further reductions. “Why would we defund a department that has proven its dedication to improving the diversity of its officers to ensure it’s more representative of that community?” she asked. “I agree with many that Northampton is a racist town; however, that is not a result of your police force.”

Many commenters asked the council for a major cut to the Police Department budget.

“You’re in positions of power and are mostly white — look at yourself,” Nicholas, of Ward 2, said. “You have a duty to the Black population here and the students that live in this area to protect us. The police do not do that … the police watch us like hawks.”

Richard Hendrick, a Ward 3 resident and longtime clinical social worker, also asked the council for a budget cut.

“If you go back to 1955 — and I was involved with this — getting rid of the Belchertown State School and then the Northampton institution right up your hill ... so many people were saying, ‘This is not going to happen, it will never happen. What are you going to do with those folks when you let them free?’ It took a powerful amount of people — and things changed.”

The council cannot reallocate funding, noted Ezekiel Baskin. “I urge you to make a substantial cut and pass a resolution or recommendation urging the mayor to submit a revised budget that reallocates an equal amount of funds to social services,” Baskin said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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