500 people, 7 hours: Virtual City Council meeting draws crowd, calls to cut police budget 

  • Northampton Police Station GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 5:38:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — More than 500 people attended a City Council budget hearing on Zoom that went for nearly seven hours Wednesday evening, ending around midnight. In several hours of public comment, residents asked the council to reject a proposed increase of nearly $200,000 in the Police Department’s budget and instead decrease the department’s funding.

Franny Choi, a Ward 1 resident, referenced the city’s recent Resolution Denouncing Anti-Asian, Anti-Asian American and Xenophobic Discrimination and the 2016 Resolution Declaring Northampton’s Commitment to Being a Safe and Accepting Community, which state the City Council believes in “the rights of people to lead lives of peace and dignity free from fear, harassment and violence.”

“These resolutions are beautifully worded, but they are meaningless unless you actually do something to divest from the organization, the organization that is directly responsible for perpetuating fear, harassment and violence,” Choi said, referencing the Police Department. “To pass a resolution like this and then not only do nothing to back it up, but to actually give the cops more money is an insult to the lives of black people murdered by the police this year and in many years prior. It is an insult to the Asian-Americans whose lives you invoke in order to prop yourselves up as anti-racist progressives.”

She added, “If you do choose not to decrease the funding for the police but instead to increase it, then I ask that you retract this resolution.”

Choi was one of many people who spoke during public comment, which came at the end of the meeting and after several hours of budget presentations from the Department of Public Works, Northampton Public Schools, the Fire Department, central services and the Police Department.

The Police Department is expecting a $193,579 increase in funding in Mayor David Narkewicz’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Roughly $140,000 of that is for contractual salary increases, $8,000 is for training and around $45,000 will go toward replacing several cruisers with hybrid vehicles, according to Chief Jody Kasper.

The extra funding comes amid a difficult financial year, as the city is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the budget includes cutting the equivalent of 17.25 full-time jobs, none of which are in the Health Department, Fire Department, emergency dispatch or the Police Department “as they are critical to the city’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” Narkewicz wrote in his proposed budget.

Public comment

Many attendees changed their Zoom profile photos to feature messages such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Strong communities make police obsolete,” and “Defund and abolish the police.”

Police Department funding should be redirected to social services, many residents said. Referencing a comment Narkewicz made earlier in the evening, city resident Emily Coffin, a licensed clinical social worker, said “the mayor said that the police are filling social services cracks, which, again, is exactly the problem. The fact that he even said that is illustrating that he doesn’t understand the problem.”

Aspen Bey, a Ward 5 resident, shared similar thoughts. “I’ve had friends who have been violently arrested while having mental health crises,” Bey said. “I think we as a community can move towards things like trauma-informed mental health organizations that can come in and respond to things like that.”

Dana Goldblatt, a city resident and attorney, noted that, earlier in the meeting, Chief Kasper said the department put on birthday parades and installed car seats this year.

“We don’t need an armed paramilitary to do those things,” Goldblatt said. “This is officially insane. The fact that we got to the point that we justify an armed paramilitary because they are like, ‘Well, we are trying to be less paramilitary-ish, and we do birthday parades,’ is insane. We need to defund them a lot. They are sucking up resources from Tapestry, they are sucking up resources from housing.”

Jamila Gore, a Ward 2 resident, said she agreed with other commenters, particularly with one person who said the police are a systemic form of oppression, especially for people of color.

She added, “I am a person of African descent, and I would like to say that, if you are not a person of color, I don’t think you can speak on whether you think the police are biased on a racial basis. I don’t really think you have that authority to talk about that.”

Ace Tayloe pointed to Chief Kasper’s salary of $151,278 in the proposed budget. “This is more than the mayor makes. In fact, the chief of police, the captains and the lieutenants all make more than the mayor of Northampton,” Tayloe said.

“If the chief of police is very worried about balancing the budget, then I would encourage her to take a pay cut of her own to prioritize the trainings that she claims to so strongly support,” Tayloe added.

Flood of messages

Councilors received a flood of messages before the meeting, too. “I have received a total of 237 emails, and just a little while ago my phone rang, and it was a resident,” said Ward 6 councilor Marianne LaBarge. “My phone has been ringing all day … All I’ve been hearing is about rejecting Mayor Narkewicz’s proposal to expand police funding of nearly $200,000.”

Kasper said she got phone calls, too. “I’ve been answering the phone all day as well, explaining why we’ve done what we’ve done.”

Before public comment, LaBarge said it was important to restore trust in the department, and Kasper spoke about her department’s budget and took questions from city councilors.

Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett said he did a ride-along with the department last fall. “I feel very confident that as a police department, that you’re doing a really great job at moving in a progressive direction,” he said.

“I’m really grateful for the highly trained nature of the NPD,” said Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore. But training alone will not solve the issue, she later said. “The Minneapolis police received extensive training. So I don’t think the training is enough,” she said.

Maiore suggested looking into alternatives to policing. “I actually think Northampton is an extremely well-positioned place to serve as a model to other municipals and take a lead on researching and exploring with alternatives to policing that would complement our force and trying to make changes proactively before we have an incident here,” she said. “I think that there’s an opportunity here and I know you made this budget in earnest, but I don’t think this budget is reflecting that opportunity.”

“I’m always open to ideas,” Kasper said. “I will explore them. I want to bring good things to our community.”

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday night at 7:05 p.m. over Zoom via https://bit.ly/36xNsrE.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.
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