Guest columnist Dennis Bidwell: The consequences of Northampton’s police budget cuts

  • Northampton Police Station

Published: 7/10/2020 3:58:35 PM
Modified: 7/10/2020 3:58:24 PM

As the nation, with the world watching, confronts our country’s systemic racism with an intense focus on policing, white people like me are doing more listening, learning, exploring and engaging in challenging conversations.

The police murder of George Floyd, along with countless others, has forced this long overdue national reckoning, built on millions of personal reckonings. The “defund” movement has stimulated critical conversations about shifting some current responsibilities handled by the police — such as the response to mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence situations — to other entities better suited for this work, with an accompanying reallocation of budget dollars.

In the midst of these urgent societal conversations, the work of local government goes on in City Councils and Town Meetings across the country. That’s where the rubber meets the road, where the broad slogans meet the nitty-gritty of decisions about public safety policy and priorities in spending local taxpayer dollars.

As a Northampton city councilor who stepped down in January, I have had sympathy for our councilors as they faced enormous pressure from constituents, and others, leading up to their votes on the fiscal year 2021 budget. Councilors have described the impact of hundreds of impassioned comments during their Zoom meetings, the impact of thousands demonstrating at public protests and the impact of caravans of protestors driving to their homes, not to engage in dialogue, but to shout demands at them through bullhorns.

I’ve heard councilors say that their votes to reduce the Police Department’s budget by 10% were prompted by the sentiment that “Change can’t wait,” and “It’s time to send a message.”

So, I have to ask my former colleagues, and new councilors as well: Will your vote to cut 10% of the police budget produce the sort of change the public is clamoring for? Will you be getting the changes you hoped for?

Let’s review the consequences of the City Council’s cuts to the police budget:

The police department this next year will be whiter and older than the police department in place this year. That’s because the department, in losing five positions, has laid off the three most recently hired police officers (one position was vacant, one officer has resigned.) One of these is a bilingual Latina with a four-year degree. One is a white male with a background in mental health and experience in de-escalation and crisis intervention. The third is a white male with a four-year degree and experience in emergency medical response. Two of the three will graduate from the Police Academy this month and were poised to join the force. One was set to begin the Academy this month.

The officers that will be laid off — all specifically recruited by the police chief as examples of recruits with a “guardian” mentality as opposed to a “warrior” mentality — will clearly be picked up by other police departments.

The $75,000 Northampton taxpayers invested in the Police Academy training of these officers will be money down the drain, to the benefit of the other police departments that hire them.

The $670,000 cut from the police department budget will not be redirected to addiction services, to homeless services or to domestic violence services. Rather, those dollars will be restored to the city’s reserve funds. The council can cut budget items, but it has no authority to reassign those dollars. The council made these cuts with no plan in place to shift these resources to address other priorities.

The council’s budget vote has unmistakable implications for morale and officer retention in the Police Department.

I understand the pressure to “send a message,” to “take bold action.” But are these outcomes the bold changes that protestors had in mind? Are they the changes the council sought?

Did the councilors who settled on 10% as the right amount to cut — after considering 35% and 15% — ask the police chief to estimate for them the personnel impacts of the proposed cuts? Did our councilors take this vote with full knowledge of the implications of their vote? I’m not sure which is worse — making this decision knowing full well what would happen, or making this decision having never asked the questions.

But that is now history. The next critical step is the formation of the Northampton Policing Review Commission, a joint special commission of the mayor and City Council. That body is charged with conducting a sweeping review of policing and community safety in Northampton, aware that profound structural change is needed.

Let’s hope that the council and mayor will work together to assure that the 15 members of this public body include the broad range of perspectives and backgrounds that need to be at the table for this crucial conversation. The group needs to include the voices of historically marginalized communities and of social service agencies, owners and workers at local businesses and law enforcement.

For the recommendations of this group to enjoy buy-in and support from the different sectors of our community there will need to be a combination of activists, data-driven public policy experts, and those with access to Zoom and those needing other means of participation.

Let’s hope that this group will produce recommendations based on deep study and careful reflection, not just on the intimidating presence of the loudest voices. And let’s hope that the recommendations will be swiftly implemented, bringing about the deep structural change worthy of this moment of reckoning.

Dennis Bidwell is a former Ward 2 City Councilor for Northampton.

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