Guest columnist Al Simon: Policing report a good first step, but areas lacking

  • Northampton Police Station

Published: 3/30/2021 4:10:02 PM

In response to the killing of George Floyd and the abuse and killings of other Black and brown people across the country, the Northampton Policing Review Commission was charged with rethinking the city’s approach to policing.

As a group of Northampton residents who have been working to better understand the impacts of racism, we’ve been closely following the commission’s work. Members of our group have met with commissioners, attended public meetings, and written to the commission with suggestions.

We shared the following priorities:

■ Redesign the structure of the dispatch system so that mental health professionals, rather than the police, deal with issues of mental health and homelessness.

■Improve data collection and summary about incidents, police responses, and final disposition, by race, gender, and age to better understand the scope of the problem in our town.

■Create a restorative justice mechanism for community members who have been harmed to speak about their experience directly with members of the police department outside the law enforcement context.

■Establish an independent board for police accountability.

The commissioners offered significant recommendations regarding restructuring of the dispatch system and response by trained peers, mental health providers, and those experienced in assisting individuals with human service needs. We fully agree with recommendations to increase social supports in Northampton, along with a decrease in armed response to crises caused by unmet human needs. The commission did substantial work on this topic and we commend them for their effort and recommendations.

There are, though, several areas that are lacking in the commission’s report, which should be pursued by our city government.

Fully understanding the scope of policing issues in Northampton requires much better data collection to help determine solutions. For example, while social support alternatives are suggested, the aggregate data on specific needs is lacking. This is required for staffing and spending levels for the new department of Community Care being recommended.

In this same vein, existing data doesn’t fully allow us to see the scope or depth of any misconduct or disrespectful interactions. The gathering of citizen testimony was a great opportunity to put information together to better reveal what must be addressed. The many compelling firsthand accounts of problems with our police department need further investigation.

A restorative justice process should be pursued. Facilitated dialogues, such as restorative justice processes or community conversations with police, would be a step in the right direction. Although the Police Department website mentions some opportunities for citizens to meet and relate in positive ways to police officers, there is no mention in the report of these opportunities, and whether or not they have been successful.

We also strongly suggested that the Northampton Police Department participate in the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program, developed by UMass professor emeritus Ervin Staub, which has been adopted by the New Orleans and 78 other police departments nationwide. While it is relatively new, initial statistics indicate that it curtails police misconduct, decreases police mistakes, and promotes officer health and wellness, while substantially reducing violent or negative interactions with the public.

The report doesn’t address what we see as the crux of the issue: How do we change the behavior of police officers who act with undue force and/or disrespect to community members, and how do we hold those officers accountable for their actions?

Fundamentally, it is the lack of accountability for police misconduct, exposed by repeated George Floyd-like tragedies, that makes necessary a different form of complaint/misconduct review.

We believe a permanent, independent Police Oversight Board should be established, with investigative and disciplinary authority, be independent of the Police Department and mayor, and be subject to democratic control. It is imperative that any incentives to hide bad behavior through solely internal review be eliminated. It is critical that any bad behavior be exposed so that it can be sanctioned, and steps taken to prevent its recurrence.

We are grateful to the commissioners for their time and commitment to this issue and for taking a step in the right direction. As a city, we have a long way to go. Solutions will not be simplistic, and will require continued effort and involvement from all of us. We look forward to public deliberation on these issues.

This guest column was co-authored by Linda J. Baker, Douglas Beattie, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Linda Eichengreen, Peggy Gillespie, Ellen Meeropol, Robert Meeropol, Janet Nelson and Nicholas Papouchis.
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