‘Our work is far from done’: Police departments respond to community criticism, concerns 

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/1/2020 5:20:01 PM

George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis is prompting local police chiefs and municipal officials to express sympathy to his family and friends while at the same time acknowledging racism and bias have no place in law enforcement.

In a message to the community on her department’s Facebook page, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper outlined a series of actions the department has taken over the past five years that she says address systemic racism and implicit bias and place limits on how police officers use force.

“Our work is far from done,” Kasper wrote in the lengthy post. “We will continue to learn and to listen, so that we can provide professional and respectful police service to all members of our community.”

In Amherst, a statement released Sunday evening said that officers and town and school officials will work to ensure all community members are protected “through training, listening, and learning, and by maintaining an attitude of humility and service.”

The correspondence came from Police Chief Scott Livingstone, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and School Superintendent Michael Morris, along with Human Rights Commission Chairman Matthew Charity and the leadership of the town’s two police unions, the Amherst Police Patrol Officers Union and Amherst Police Supervisors Union.

Livingstone said it is important to publicize his department’s efforts, which he will do in person as the week unfolds.

“I was one of the authors and feel strongly about what was drafted,” Livingstone said. “I do have several meetings scheduled this week with various community groups to discuss what actions we can take to move forward and regain the trust of all our citizens.”

Kasper, too, will be seeking dialogue with Northampton residents. “Earlier this year we began discussions about strengthening and building new partnerships with members of our community,” Kasper wrote in an email. “We look forward to the opportunities to do that.”

Easthampton Police Chief Robert J. Alberti is emphasizing the need for having policing that is colorblind.

“In partnership with our city leaders and our community, we will continue to engage one another, learn from one another and serve our community equitably and with justice for all,” Alberti wrote in a post on his department’s Facebook page.

In a Facebook post, Holyoke Police Chief Manny Febo denounced the actions of the four officers involved in the death of George Floyd, which he described as “infuriating,” and “we understand the sorrow, pain, and anger that is being felt across the country,” he wrote.

“First and foremost, the Holyoke Police Department will never support or tolerate any officer who wears the uniform to perpetrate acts of brutal force and/or violence against anyone based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” Febo stated. “Our job is to protect, serve, and preserve lives at all cost.”

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz issued a statement expressing sadness and anger for Floyd’s killing and that he hopes there can be swift justice and his killers punished.

“Moreover, I want our country to take this moment to say that enough is enough, that black lives matter, and that we finally take action to end institutional racism and bias,” Narkewicz said. “This is why I support Police Chief Kasper’s sincere and considerable efforts to ensure that all people feel welcome in our community, and that all people are treated with respect and dignity by the Northampton Police.”

Kasper, noting that the core of any police department’s mission “is to protect and serve,” observed that Floyd’s death has meant a disruption and fracturing of the trust people place in police everywhere.

“We must be committed to inclusion and equity,” Kasper wrote. “We must want all people to feel welcome in our community and to have confidence in the services that we provide. We must treat everyone with respect and dignity.”

She outlined 13 steps that have been taken, including the use of force policy, last updated in 2018, that focuses on deescalation and prohibits chokeholds, neck restraints or anything that restricts a person’s airway in non-deadly force situations. There also has been implicit bias training through the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, deescalation training, the Fair and Impartial Policing Course for new officers and participation in the White House Police Data Initiative under former President Barack Obama.

Northampton has had its own recent experience with challenges to police procedures, including an out-of-court settlement for $52,000 related to a civil rights claim made by an Amherst man about excessive force during his arrest in March 2013, and a man of African-American and indigenous descent who is seeking $700,000 in damages from the city and local officials over what he claims have been retaliatory arrests.

Kasper said police are in a field where the actions of one officer can negatively impact the image of all officers. “We will continue to work to earn the trust of our community members through the exceptional services that we provide and by building and strengthening our community partnerships,” Kasper said.

Diversity is kept in mind when hiring new officers, Kasper said. “We have improved the diversity of our department, although we still have a long way to go.”

Livingstone said getting people to pursue careers as police officers is a growing challenge.

“Recruitment is becoming more difficult, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to even get people to apply for our openings,” Livingstone said. “If we in Amherst are having a tough time, imagine how it is in urban settings.”

The Amherst statement offers condolences to Floyd’s family and friends and condemns the actions and inactions of the Minneapolis officers, calling it a “wrong that needs to be righted.”

“We feel compelled to say affirmatively and with real compassion that violence like this is yet another blow to black and brown people — particularly African-American men — who too often are told by our culture that they do not matter. It confirms the lived experience of black men — nationwide and, yes, in our own community.”

Alberti also shared the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association statement denouncing the fatal incident and how his department has complied with Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which released a gui de in 2015 calling for leadership and trust building between local government, law enforcement and the community.

“The mission for the Easthampton Police Department that came from this thoughtful report is ‘to build trust between citizens and their law enforcement officers so that all components of the community treat one another fairly and justly, and are invested in maintaining public safety in an atmosphere of mutual respect,’” Alberti wrote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@ gazettenet.com.

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