Guest columnist Brian Zayatz: A call for drastic reductions in Northampton’s police budget

  • Northampton Police Station

Published: 6/2/2020 4:43:32 PM

Mayor David Narkewicz has presented his proposed budget for fiscal 2021, which begins in July, to the City Council. In his presentation, he noted that the city is expecting major drops in revenue for the fourth quarter of this year and for the first quarter of next year, while also facing unexpected expenditures as the city adapts to life under the pandemic.

Additionally, the state has yet to release updated information on its fiscal 2021 budget, which may contain significant cuts, leaving cities like Northampton, which relied on state funding for nearly 17% of its budget last year, in the dark.

Amid this uncertain economic environment, the mayor has cautiously recommended only minor cuts across several departments, including his own. While these cuts amount to only a 0.03% decrease from fiscal 2020 in the citywide budget, they can be significant to their respective departments — for example, the senior services budget is facing a 25% cut.

All this comes at the same time as, yet again, a wave of lynchings perpetrated or covered up by police rocks the nation.

While it’s believed that the Northampton Police Department hasn’t fired a gun on duty in decades, the pandemic has ramped up the baseline level of violence that all police departments wield by nature of their jobs. An arrest necessarily means being in close contact with at least one, but usually several other people, then riding in a car with at least one other person, then being placed in a cell often with many other people and without proper sanitation.

With courts backed up as they figure out if and how to conduct trials virtually, people are spending more time incarcerated even if they are ultimately found innocent. Every step of the way carries a heightened risk of infection and, consequently, of death.

Meanwhile, NPD officers have been deployed as public health workers. The mayor instructs people via Facebook to call the police on kids playing in a parking lot, failure to wear a mask in public carries a possible $300 fine, and we know that, in a racist society, no amount of training makes these measures likely to be enforced equitably. Like all police, the NPD has escalated situations to the point of arrest that could have easily been resolved peacefully. Even if no bullets are fired and no chokeholds performed, this is a pattern that could cost lives.

Given the city’s uncertain economic foothold and the literal life-and-death stakes that have suddenly inflected our everyday interactions, I find now to be a perfect time to amplify a demand of veteran anti-violence activists: We must halve our city’s budget for policing and halve the NPD’s personnel.

The proposed fiscal 2021 budget allocates nearly $7 million for policing, an increase of $194,000 over the current fiscal year. This increase is pretty much on par with the NPD’s annual budget growth over the last several years, except for fiscal 2020, when the department received almost $1 million more than the previous year.

Chief Jody Kasper’s blurb in the budget does not address how the department made use of this huge leap in funding, but it does assure us that crime has been trending downward for several years (and surely, this curve has only steepened, as crime has trended down almost everywhere since the start of the pandemic). Why do we keep increasing our police budget then?

Let’s imagine what could be done only with the $194,000 increase in funding over last year. How many masks, face shields, and personal hand sanitizer dispensers could be purchased with that money and made available to Northampton residents for free? That would eliminate the need for police to fine people for not having masks. $194,000 is also greater than the combined cuts to both senior and veterans’ services. Since seniors are a group that is extremely vulnerable to this virus, shouldn’t we be increasing outreach, education and services, rather than cutting? Likewise for veterans’ services, a significant part of whose work is helping veterans avoid homelessness.

Now let’s imagine what we could do if the city had half of the policing budget back: $3.5 million. I will offer some free ideas: free testing. Expanded contact tracing. Fully subsidized, non-means tested housing for anyone who needs it for the duration of the pandemic. Renters’ assistance. Free meal and grocery deliveries. All of these things would make it more likely that more people would survive the pandemic and its aftermath. Police do not.

The Health Department, for its part, is receiving a 46% increase in funding for next fiscal year, though its top two goals are listed in the budget document as “work with Northampton Police Department to educate and enforce smoke free park and recreation areas,” and “research evidence based data to support smoke-free downtown” — the latter of which one of the Board of Health’s own members has speculated is likely impossible.

The problem clearly goes much deeper than mere funding. The health department continues to lean on police as public health workers while evidence mounts that this is an extremely counterproductive approach.

We cannot wait until the road away from policing is fully mapped out ahead of us to make these changes. As long as police are exorbitantly funded, they will engage in elaborate public relations stunts like the Citizen Police Academy, or fundraisers for good causes that raise pennies compared to the NPD’s actual budget, all of which are designed to further legitimize and entrench a violent institution.

Now, more than ever, we cannot wait. The budget refers to the pandemic as an “unprecedented public health crisis.” It’s time to prioritize health, wellness and safety over precedent.

Brian Zayatz, of Hadley, is a contributor to the Shoestring, an alternative news collective in Northampton.

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