Guest columnist Marc Warner: Progressive ideology shouldn’t drive Northampton policing budget

  • Northampton Police Station

Published: 4/28/2021 1:23:50 PM

The recording of the Northampton Arts Council’s most recent Zoom meeting shows what could hardly be a nicer group of people. The primary item of the night’s agenda, however, was not their usual subject, and the Council’s consequent action — the latest in a series of similar actions elsewhere in the city – should raise a concern for all of Northampton: unthinking adherence to progressive values at the expense of good sense and governance.

The subject of the Arts Council’s meeting was the size and function of the Northampton Police Department. This is far from the Council’s mission to support and nurture the arts in Northampton, but they had put the issue on the agenda at the request of Northampton Abolition Now (NAN).

That group has issued a set of demands (not goals, “demands”) for a 50% reduction in the city’s police budget for the coming fiscal year, with the use of the freed-up funds and the hiring and firing authority over a city department in the hands of those “who have been most harmed by police and state violence.”

NAN helped to orchestrate the local efforts last summer that got the Northampton City Council to abruptly cut the police budget by 10% — although not to reprogram the funds, as the city charter does not give the council that discretion.

The Northampton Abolition Now website lists 180 or so signatories to their demands, although only about half of these are from actual city residents. The group has also lined up and sought organizational supporters, and that’s what brought them to the Arts Council earlier this month.

The Arts Council board members listened for over an hour to a NAN spokesperson, and then voted to back NAN’s demands by near unanimity. Did the majority even consider the impact a 50% cut might have on public safety or whether it really makes sense for a city to give public management and spending authority on the basis of perceived oppressed or persecuted status?

Did they see the potential for this ostensible quest for restorative justice to become primarily a source of patronage and cronyism?

My guess is they did not, but their “walk the talk” statements at their April meeting suggests the Arts Council signed-on to NAN’s demands out of a more general sense that any action with an aura of inclusion, equity, and progressive values can never be at odds with basic good governance.

A less egregious but similar attitude affected the Northampton Policing Review Commission. The members of that group, which issued its final report in March, put in a great deal of volunteer effort and most of them seemed to have approached the subject with reason and fair intent. (One exception may be the commission member who wrote in a personal statement at the end of the final report: “Can individual cops be good people, yes, but there are no good cops.”) Their report appropriately recommended a variety of further, data-driven analyses of policing needs, staffing and overtime, but they also cited Northampton’s progressive pride as a reason “to take steps to reduce the footprint of the police in areas which do not require an armed response.”

The problem here is that the commission members lacked the subject matter expertise to determine the calls that could definitively forego an armed response, or Northampton’s context and constraints that would define the optimal policing footprint. Their key recommendation for the city to create a Department of Community Care as a non-police option for emergency services is a worthy goal, but the recommended level of funding is a total guess.

There is no more basis for their recommendation to fund the proposed department with the 10% that the City Council cut from the police budget last summer (with robust funding going forward) than there is for the City Council’s decision to cut the 10% in the first place or for the massive police cuts demanded by NAN. These actions and recommendations do not reflect any metrics about emergency call response time and patrol officer productivity, or any assessments of officer assignments relative to the distribution of emergency calls by type and time-of-day. There is certainly no consideration of Northampton’s collective bargaining agreements.

We of course still need to act. George Floyd’s murder and the broader Black Lives Matter protests do highlight a need for deep police reforms. Police Chief Jody Kasper, with input from the mayor and city council, should be seriously examining the guidelines on the use of potentially deadly force, officer training, options for mental health and social service cases, the tracking and disciplining of bad officers, and the presence of any program that sure looks like routine harassment of people of color.

This is how Northampton should show its progressive values. Declaring up front that the city should cut a fixed percent of the police budget, however, is simply arbitrary. It is pursuit of progressive purity without a grounding in data or reality. It is not a sensible way to govern.

Marc Warner lives in Northampton

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