Guest columnist Lemy Coffin: A case for abolition in Northampton

  • Northampton Police Department GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/13/2022 7:09:51 PM
Modified: 9/13/2022 7:05:56 PM

When questions about policing in Northampton are raised, a common refrain appears: what does Minneapolis or Louisville have to do with the “progressive” police force of Northampton?

In reading recent work by Black feminists Andrea J. Ritchie and Mariame Kaba — I would argue that places like Northampton are a key piece of the puzzle in ending a system that has proven time and time again to fail to produce safety and continues to perpetrate violence.

In “No More Police: A Case for Abolition,” released Aug. 30, Kaba and Ritchie have made a clear and compelling argument for all communities to work toward police and prison abolition. They intertwine Black feminist theory with hard facts on the topic of policing, violence and safety that clearly demonstrate the ways policing as a public safety strategy has failed. They also outline the abolitionist strategies that offer communities a clear and careful path forward.

One concept they reference is “organized abandonment,” as a “concerted divestment from meeting basic needs of the populace while simultaneously promoting criminalization as a response to the fallout.” This social trend, Ritchie and Kaba argue, is what fuels ever-increasing police budgets and “ratchets up” criminalization and policing as a supposed solution when our communities face crisis. This is all in the face of many crises nationally: an ongoing global pandemic, an ever-persistent climate crisis, and a looming possible economic recession on the horizon.

This ratcheting up of criminalization in response to crisis comes with significant harm — harm through taking people away from their jobs and families through incarceration (thus often losing a return on investment on social services), harm through sexual and physical violence perpetrated by police, and harm through systematically underfunded community care networks such as schools, libraries, health care and more.

And so when I hear my neighbors, my city councilors, and my community talk about the Northampton Police Department as an exceptional and progressive police force, the question still remains for me: Is a $6 million budget for police in our community really the answer we want to historic and contemporary organized abandonment in western Mass? And has the $1.3 million increase in this budget since 2009 really made our community safer?

From colonialism to enslavement of Black people to the rise of policing and mass incarceration, when will we face the reality that policing is doing very little to solve social problems, all the while perpetrating violence daily?

Throughout their new book, and highlighted in a recent interview with the Guardian, Kaba and Ritchie recall some harrowing statistics:

“Less than 5% of the 10 million arrests each year are for incidents classified as ‘violent crime.’ Police typically arrive after harm has occurred, and solve 20-25% of ‘serious crimes.’ Research suggests that there is no relationship between the number of police and crime rates, and that higher incarceration levels do not correspond to reduced violence.”

Despite these statistics and many more, politicians and police departments are doubling down on selling policing as a cornerstone of social stability. From President Biden’s new “Safe America Plan,” to local politicians routinely denouncing Northampton Abolition Now, somehow we are continuing to ignore the poor outcomes and systemic violence of policing, all while treating those who challenge the system of policing as a threat to our social fabric.

We have heard refrains from Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper lamenting the waning morale and retention of Northampton police officers. This ignores the risks of having our supposed “public safety” carefully cradled in the egos of public employees. We have seen pictures of police meeting with children, or donating coats to Manna kitchen on Facebook. This ignores the fact that police officers may get paid double or triple what many staff and teachers make in publicly funded schools and social services (depending on how you calculate overtime of these professions).

We see ongoing “officer friendly” rhetoric coming from the Northampton Police Department, and a steadfast municipal bankrolling of a debunked logic of public safety. So-called “progressive policing” touts that safety can be obtained by an ongoing commitment to community relations; it chases trust in police as the elusive missing piece to social harmony.

And while it is to be expected that the police are invested in keeping their approaches to public safety afloat, unfortunately the mayor and the City Council have made no commitments to divesting from policing as a public safety strategy either. We see the mayor, backed by many city councilors, sign a five-year contract for new dash cameras, touting “accountability” and a need for our police force to have working equipment. This ignored the fact that dash camera footage has little to no proven outcomes in increasing safety in communities, especially when compared to other strategies. This also ignored dash camera footage’s significant role in increasing evidence for minor offenses, which in turn fuels mass incarceration.

And so, the future looks grim in Northampton for our role in the exponential increase of funding for policing and incarceration locally and nationally.

More questions arise: Where is Northampton positioned in a social landscape of organized abandonment stemming from structural and environmental racism? And because some of us are less so survivors and more beneficiaries of organized abandonment — as white, as middle or owning class — does that absolve us from the moral responsibility to divest from policing? Even if our police force is supposedly “progressive?”

Or does it make it all the more important that we heed the call of prominent Black feminists and wholeheartedly commit to defunding the police?

Lemy Coffin lives in Northampton and is a member of Northampton Abolition Now.
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