Northampton council OK’s budget after emotional meeting over PD funding

  • Northampton Police Station

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. Gazette file photo

Staff writer
Published: 6/18/2021 6:15:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — At the five-hour mark of a meeting that aired emotional arguments for and against reallocating half of the Police Department budget, the City Council approved Mayor David Narkewicz’s fiscal 2022 budget in an 8-1 vote early Friday morning.

The $121.7 million spending plan increases Police and School department funding and restores full-time staff to the Senior Services and Health departments. A Proposition 2½ override approved by voters in March 2020, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will go into effect at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore was the only councilor to vote against the budget. She cited her concern that the new Department of Community Care did not receive adequate funding to be fully operational by the start of fiscal 2023.

More than 140 people joined the virtual council meeting that started at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. About 80 people spoke, and the meeting lasted until about 1 a.m. Friday.

A $424,000 allocation for the Department of Community Care was at the center of controversy for months leading up to the final vote. Activist groups including Northampton Abolition Now wanted 50% of the police budget reallocated to other city services and the new department’s budget raised to about $880,000.

Defunding police not recommended

The new department was proposed in a March report by the Policing Review Commission, which was formed in the wake of widespread unrest that followed the murders of unarmed Black men and women by police and private citizens nationwide. The commission recommended a budget of $882,602 “at a minimum.”

Advocates for the Department of Community Care envision unarmed responders managing certain calls that are typically handled by police, such as threats of suicide, substance abuse problems, issues related to homelessness and mental health crises. Other tasks would include responding for wellness checks, suspicious person calls, nonviolent public assembly, animal control, minor traffic accidents and misdemeanors.

“Our report did not recommend defunding the Police Department,” Policing Review Commission member Carol Owen said. “It has not been our intent to torpedo the NPD, as is advocated by some in our community.”

Owen said she recommended that Mayor Narkewicz “find money from any available source … in order to adequately fund the new department,” listing several possible sources of funds such as criminal justice grants.

The current $424,000 allocation will pay for two salaries, advertising, travel, office expenses, a community needs assessment and any other necessary studies.

“We’re gonna do some research, and that’s great, but when we’re done, can we do anything?” said Dan Cannity, another member of the review commission. He said the allocation will not get the new department up and running by the start of fiscal 2023 — on July 1, 2022 — which is the city’s stated goal.

Cathy McNally said she feels like Narkewicz is “paying lip service” to the Department of Community Care rather than making a serious effort to launch and fund it.

“Is the mayor setting up (the department) to actually fail or falter?” McNally said. “Please do the right thing. Reject this budget. Tell the mayor we can easily find the full $800,000-plus.”

Defending the allocation on Friday morning, Narkewicz offered a comparison between the Department of Community Care and CAHOOTS, a similar program in Eugene, Oregon, cited by some activists as a model for a peer-led unarmed response department.

“Eugene, OR has a population of 176,464 and a proposed FY2022 budget of $724.3 million,” said Narkewicz by email. “They fund CAHOOTS at $800K via a contract between the Eugene Police Department and a local non-profit named White Bird Clinic.

“Northampton, MA has a population of 28,519 and a proposed FY2022 budget of $121.7 million. We are proposing an initial Department of Community Care budget of $423,955,” the mayor said.

Emotional testimony

At Thursday night’s meeting, Janel Jorda of Northampton said reallocating 50% of the police budget would eliminate funding for professional development and training “to address bad policing tactics.”

“You will have fewer police, and while you could have a lone social worker responding to a crisis call, what happens if that person needs to call 911 for assistance and there’s no one available?” Jorda asked. “The overwhelming majority of police are good and decent people who should not be stereotyped as bad cops.”

Celina della Croce of Leeds recounted a story of seeing police officers scream at a suicidal woman who was threatening to jump off an overpass. She said that passersby are the ones who restrained the woman and kept her from jumping. This and other stories of police allegedly mistreating vulnerable people led her to support the idea of cutting the police budget in half and reallocating the money.

Henry Morgan of Florence said the budget “sends the message that the police are above the law, the Constitution and morality itself.” He characterized the Police Department’s role in the city as a “repressive” and violent “occupation.”

Jose Adastra, whose display name read “WMA Abolitionist Collective,” said they were prepared to “cause havoc” and block traffic in Northampton “for the rest of my life” in response to “white supremacist” policing.

“Policing as an institution exists to protect property, not people,” said Jessica Brown. “Do not listen to the racist, fearmongering police supporters who come to these calls.”

Shanna Fishel of Leeds, a candidate to replace the outgoing mayor in November’s election, urged the council to “make history” by rejecting Narkewicz’s plan.

“Imagine funding the police department $400,000, or funding the fire department $400,000. You would say that’s dismal,” Fishel said. “If you want a policeman with a gun coming to your house, you should have one. But if you don’t, you should have another choice.”

Mary “Mimi” Odgers added that “$400,000 is what you ask from a few investors, not what you allocate to an entire department.”

Before the vote, Mareatha Wallace said that, if the budget passed as is, it would not be the end of the issue.

“We will come back stronger, we will come back with more of us, until you see how serious we are about what we need in this community,” Wallace said.

City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra, also a candidate for mayor, said she is “committed to seeing this through to being a fully operational department.”

Budget technicality

In response to questions from Maiore, the Ward 7 councilor who voted no, city solicitor Alan Seewald said “the charter doesn’t contemplate a voting-down or a rejection of the budget.”

“It says the council shall pass the budget, including amendments, within 45 days” of the mayor submitting his proposal to the City Clerk’s office, or it will go into effect as written, Seewald said.

Maiore said the Department of Community Care should have received the funding for an advisory board, and a 24/7 department that is supposed to be operational within a year may not be successful without more money up front.

“Is ($424,000) a meaningful investment that assures viability? If not, why are we settling for that?” Maiore said before voting no on the budget. “What are we communicating if we do it that way?”

Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett said that, to meet the demands of police abolitionists, the council would have to vote down the entire budget, a move he said would be “symbolic” and cause the budget to go into effect anyway.

But he said the current allocation would not allow hiring enough staff to run the Department of Community Care, and he asked that Narkewicz “consider changing allocations for other departments and find additional funding as soon as possible.”

“There are so many needs other than just the peer emergency response,” Jarrett said. “Safe and accessible housing, access to shelter and food and treatment programs. … I’m sure not all of these can be directly met through a city program, but I think we do need to (expand) the agenda of the new department and push the boundaries of what can be offered.”

“These are needs that, if met, will reduce crime and conflict and save resources,” he said. “I agree with the vast majority of this budget, and so I’m going to vote for it.”


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