Columnist William Newman: A tale of three cities and nearby towns

Published: 6/17/2021 4:10:34 PM

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. The worst of times because people of color are still being killed by police without legal or moral justification; still being stopped for driving while Black; still being accosted in myriad ways for living while Black. Horrible and inexcusable and yet still routinely excused.

And yet it also is the best of times — or at least potentially a big improvement over what has been. The country is coming to a reckoning with its racist past and present and grappling with a handmaiden of racism, police violence.

Racism. How else to explain that traffic stops disproportionately target people of color? How else to explain the disproportionate percentage of police searches of cars and persons of color even though whites, studies conclusively show, are more likely to be carrying drugs? How else to explain the deaths of people of color at the hands of the police, deaths too commonplace to command headlines most of the time.

And yet — to the good — this national reckoning has spawned a reimagining of public safety. Some police departments are endorsing better training, revising their use-of-force protocols, and agreeing that some duties that have fallen to the police are better performed by others. In this way, George Floyd did not die in vain.

Here in the Upper Valley, after the murder of George Floyd, we have arrived at a consensus that police responding to mental health 911 calls can often be counter-productive and dangerous. This is a major development because many calls for service involve mental health issues.

For example, in May, the city of Greenfield and the towns of Deerfield and Montague instituted a pilot program in which 911 calls involving mental health are responded to not just by a cop but also by a clinician provided by Clinical and Support Options (CSO).

How the clinician and cop respond and divide up the work is, of course, of enormous importance. Is the cop an initial responder or, instead, an invisible-unless-needed backup? With much still to be decided, a news report last week indicated that the program has already resulted in fewer emergency room visits and arrests.

Likewise, the city of Easthampton and the town of Hadley also recently announced that they are about to launch a similar program — also staffed by CSO. The initiative reflects a major recommendation contained in the report of the Mayor’s Pledge Work Group on reimaging policing in Easthampton.

Similarly, a recommendation for response by clinicians armed with their expertise, instead of police officers, is at the core of the city of Northampton Police Review Commission’s recommendation for a Department of Community Care. And Amherst has developed a similar proposal called CRESS, Community Response for Equity, Safety and Services. CRESS is described by the Community Safety Working Group as “a civilian unarmed alternative . . . . providing community safety services in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime.”

Alternative responses to mental health calls appropriately reduce the footprint of the police. Traffic stops is another area where the footprint needs to be curtailed.

Traffic stops are fraught. Witness the deaths of Daunte Wright and Philando Castile. We don’t need an armed police officer to ticket drivers who fail to turn on their directional signal early enough or are driving with an expired registration tag. (On this topic, I recommend Northampton attorney David Hoose’s recent excellent opinion piece published in this space).

Not surprisingly, there has been pushing and shoving about the particulars of reform. Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz has proposed $424,000 as of July 1 to initiate the Department of Community Care. Northampton Abolition Now, an activist group, says that’s not enough, that the amount should be $882,602, the amount the City Council reduced the police budget last year, reflecting a 10% cut.

The defund and abolish the police advocates in Amherst, similar to Northampton, have called for a 50% reduction in the police budget. Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman has proposed an amount similar to Northampton for the initial funding and rollout of CRESS, with appropriate training, policies and procedures to be put in place and the pilot program operational by January. The fight over the initial funding level continues.

Jails and prisons in this country and the commonwealth are filled with people locked up because they suffer from mental health and substance use disorder. Reducing the interactions between the police and persons in mental health crises will reduce the numbers of people funneled into the criminal justice system, which is the last place they belong.

These changes in local communities’ response to 911 calls for people in mental health distress augur a new direction. We collectively have embarked on a better path. Finally. This is a winter of despair; it is also a spring of hope.

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not represent the opinions or position of any organization or entity.

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