Columnist Caty Simon: Spend money on treatment, not cameras

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, left, speaks during a meeting in September at the Northampton Senior Center to discuss the use of surveillance cameras downtown.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, November 13, 2017

In September, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper proposed the installation of surveillance cameras in the city’s downtown. In response, three city councilors introduced a resolution and ordinance to prohibit, with some exceptions, installation of cameras.

To understand how this police surveillance targets the poor in public space, we must examine the local historical context. Officials took similar measures in Northampton’s recent past, and like this one, also framed them as preventing crime and violence. However, in reality, they harmed poor people and were eventually defeated.

In 2008, the City Council considered legislation that would have de facto criminalized people’s First Amendment right to panhandle. The legislation was purportedly “anti-aggressive panhandling,” but laws against harassment and assault were already on the books. There was no need for a class-specific law. And the ordinance created conditions that made it impossible to panhandle at all, even peacefully. After massive public protest and packed City Council meetings, the ordinance was withdrawn from council consideration.

In 2013, the mayor removed benches from downtown Northampton to deter the homeless from sitting and sleeping on them, even though there weren’t enough shelter beds available. After enormous public outcry, including an “I Will Not Shop in Northampton Until the Benches Are Returned” Facebook page with hundreds of members, the benches were reinstalled.

The former Business Improvement District (BID) in Northampton attempted to relegate public space to business interests only, denying democratic ownership of our downtown by people of all classes. The BID, too, eventually met its end.

The lesson here is that the people of this city will not stand by in the face of efforts to abrogate the civil rights of the poor.

We’re told by Chief Kasper that passive surveillance won’t unfairly target marginalized people. Yet, when officers look back at footage, who are they likely to identify as criminal accomplices? The poor and homeless people who most often inhabit public spaces.

How will a few cultural sensitivity trainings enable officers to overcome race and class biases conditioned into all of us? They didn’t in the 2013 Northampton Police arrest of Jonas Correia. That resulted in the city insurance provider agreeing to pay him $52,500 as part of an out-of-court settlement of allegations that city police officers used excessive force and unlawfully arrested him. Even if the NPD uses surveillance technology in the most sensitive manner, once the technology is in place, how can we be assured that succeeding administrations won’t use it differently?

Surveillance will surely harm undocumented immigrants and other marginalized people. It will impose a chilling effect on activism and our cultural life. But as a harm reduction activist, I must address the effect it would have on Northampton’s illicit substance-using poor, who often are used as scapegoats to justify targeting all our poor people. While Chief Kasper herself claims that cameras don’t monitor substance-related crime well, the “illegal drug economy,” as pro-surveillance business owner Jena Sujat put it in a Gazette column (“Seeks leadership on downtown issue,” Sept. 13), has repeatedly been cited by surveillance supporters as justification for cameras. Sujat and other camera proponents refer to “shoplifting, public intoxication, aggressive behavior and violence, severe withdrawal symptoms, overdoses, and deaths,” as problems accompanying the drug trade.

Yet, aggressive behavior and violence aren’t natural outgrowths of illicit substance use — only alcohol has been directly statistically correlated with violence. The drug war creates violence among sellers, but most poor substance-users are not violent. Crimes like shoplifting take place because of poverty, whether that poverty is substance-related or not.

And while middle class, rich, and housed people buy more illicit substances than poor and homeless people, they’re not forced to inhabit public space like the poor, so their substance use doesn’t automatically make them targets of surveillance.

Public intoxication, overdose, withdrawal, and drug-related death are medical problems, not policing issues. Nationally, we’ve concluded that we cannot arrest ourselves out of substance use — it’s a public health, not a carceral issue. We shouldn’t use surveillance on poor substance- users and burden them with criminal records preventing their reintegration into the community when the solutions are clear — expansion of voluntary treatment and harm-reduction resources.

There are huge waiting lists in western Massachusetts for detox beds and medication-assisted treatment programs, the empirically proven most effective response to opioid addiction. Northampton recently received an enormous harm-reduction grant. Let’s use those funds to distribute Narcan and support the safe injection facilities that dramatically reduce drug-related nuisance complaints, save thousands from overdose, are supported by police, and are currently being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature in bill S-1081.

Northampton should know better than to do what has failed countless times: having police try to surveil away illicit substance-related problems.

Caty Simon is a local activist and writer who has lived in Northampton for most of her adult life. Her writing has appeared in VICE, Alternet, refinery29, HTMLGiant, and The Forward. This column is a condensed version of public comments she made at a meeting in October of the Northampton City Council Committee on Legislative Matters.