Guest columnist David Murphy: Council is undoing 20 years of PD progress

  • Northampton Police Station

Published: 5/30/2021 2:00:14 PM

In 2002 the Northampton Police Department became accredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission. At the time there were only about a half-dozen Police Departments in Massachusetts that were accredited, today only about 100 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts have accredited Police Departments.

The Northampton Police Department made the decision to pursue accreditation on their own, not at the request of the city’s political leadership. The department itself chose to raise its level of professional standards. They did this for two reasons — to better serve the citizens of Northampton and to assist in recruiting the best and brightest young people interested in a career in law enforcement to join the NPD.

About 10 years later, Northampton voters approved a Proposition 2½ override for $10 million to build a new $17.5 million modern police headquarters. The new facility provided for better public service and a safer environment for both victims of crime and those under arrest.

There is training space for classroom education and a state-of-the-art range for ongoing and state required firearms training. The new building also served as a recruiting tool to attract the most qualified potential applicants to consider joining the NPD.

As a result of the Police Department’s internal effort to raise its level of professionalism and support from the voters of Northampton to fund a modern police facility, the city has experienced none of the issues that have plagued many major cities across the country. The department is lead by a chief who is widely respected, holds master’s degrees in both criminal justice and public administration and teaches at the collegiate level.

A year ago, the City Council made the decision to cut the Police Department budget by 10%, an amount that totaled just over $800,000. The decision to cut the budget was made with very little notice and without studying the police budget or the implications the cuts would have on the operation of the police department.

Five of the members had been on the council for less than six months and were voting on their first municipal budget. The contemplated study of the Police Department was still months away, making the 10% cut a very random number not based on any particular police program or department activity.

A year later, let’s take a look at the results achieved by this council’s $800,000 police budget cut.

The city had three new officers at the Police Academy at the time of the budget cut; Northampton paid to equip these officers and paid them while they were at the academy. Upon graduation Northampton had to inform these three officers they no longer had jobs with the NPD.

Northampton recruited them, paid to train them and had to cut them loose at graduation. They were of course immediately hired by other police departments. In addition, a fully trained officer resigned shortly after the budget cut vote to further his career in a city whose elected officials chose to support their Police Department.

The fallout continued. Over the last year, eight additional fully trained officers have resigned to continue their careers in communities whose political leadership chooses to support their Police Departments.

In a typical year (non-pandemic), the NPD handles between 30,000 and 40,000 calls. The police are usually the first to arrive at a call for help as they are dispersed throughout the city and not dispatched from a central station like fire and ambulances are.

Police arrive at a call, determine the need and then call for appropriate support. I agree quite often police are the first to arrive at a call where there is no criminal activity and no need for a traditional police response. But when a call does involve the criminal activity having the initial response be the police is very important.

If only 10% of Northampton’s police calls are criminal in nature, that’s 3,000 to 4,000 time a year you want a police officer quickly. Unfortunately it’s very hard to predict what calls will be dangerous and what calls won’t. Northampton is a destination community so we police far more people than actually live here.

This council appears intrigued with forming a new Department of Community Care to handle calls for help that may not require a police response. I might recommend you get this new department up and functioning prior to making any more changes to the Police Department.

In any ideal outcome both the police and community care personnel will be working closely with each other and fire/ambulance personnel to provide a full range of services to the population. Let the departments develop a constructive working relationship from the beginning; the result will be much better overall.

I find it ironic that the City Council routinely inserts itself into union labor disputes, consistently siding with labor. Yet when it comes to the unionized members of the NPD, its members have no qualms about taking actions that cut their budget, terminate their jobs and create working conditions that result in Northampton police officers feeling they need to seek employment with other cities.

For the 20 years prior to this council, the city has done all it could to attract the best and brightest young people to become police officers. That effort has resulted in a Police Department that is hard working and well respected. The NPD does not have the issues we see in larger communities around this country. We don’t have the problems here you see on the nightly news.

And yet this council in one short year has done its best to undo 20 years of progress. Well done, Northampton City Council. Well done.

David Murphy is a former Northampton city councilor who is running for an at-large position on the council this fall.

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