Northampton police review hearing draws crowd

  • Several hundred people listen to speakers in front of the Northampton Police Department during a “Protest for Jacob Blake” on Sept. 5. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2020 8:53:24 PM

NORTHAMPTON — More than 100 people tuned into the first public hearing held by the Policing Review Commission to talk about policing in the city Tuesday evening.

The joint commission of the City Council and mayor’s office was proposed after residents asked the council to make significant cuts to the Police Department budget earlier this year. The commission is studying the issue to recommend changes.

Rebecca Martin, a resident who described herself as a survivor of domestic violence, said she wanted first responder options other than police.

“All things should not rest on officers’ shoulders. There needs to be other avenues, and peer-to-peer really does work,” Martin said.

Ashwin Ravikumar, an Amherst resident who spends a lot of time in Northampton, said it was concerning to hear discussion at commission meetings about what the city’s police are doing both well and poorly.

“We actually have an overwhelming, rigorously examined, empirical historical record speaking to the lineage of policing in the United States from slave catching to convict leasing through Jim Crow and into mass incarceration,” Ravikumar said. “We actually don’t need new data to establish that.”

Sean Donovan, who helps lead a peer-to-peer mental health group, said he asked a few people who had experience with police responding to mental health calls if they would attend the public forum and speak.

“None of them wanted to come tonight because they were afraid,” he said. “I just want to name that — some of the people who have the most wisdom to share, they have the most at stake in speaking publicly.”

Jose Adastra, an advocate for decarceration, was one of several people who expressed support for those experiencing homelessness. “I’m here to advocate for our local houseless population and the population that’s most at risk to be subjected to state violence,” Adastra said.

Later, Danielle Amodeo asked the commission if there are plans to gather input from people experiencing homelessness and those not comfortable coming to the Zoom meeting.

“We are working on it,” commission co-chairman Daniel Cannity said.

Amodeo also said she noticed that she was hearing fear from those advocating for the police.

“People are really afraid of what our city is going to look like without police,” she said, adding that the way forward could be “exciting.”

“It could be a system that makes it possible for all of us to call in a complaint or call in a report and know a friend is on the other end of the line — not someone who represents a system that’s really terrifying and life-threatening to people,” Amodeo said.

Cuts criticized

Arvid Nelson was one speaker who expressed support for the Police Department.

“I think the cuts that have already been made are a huge mistake,” Nelson said. After a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, Nelson said the Northampton Police Department sent a cruiser to park outside Congregation B’nai Israel.

“I don’t think a single person who saw that cruiser thought, even for a moment, that the officer inside was there to uphold so-called white supremacy,” Nelson said.

Dana Goldblatt, a city resident and attorney, later said Nelson was not correct. She said she knows some people were afraid after the shooting in Pittsburgh but she was uncomfortable with the police presence.

“I know that in this one spiritual community there was a very diverse perspective on what the police meant,” she said.

Ellen McGrath, a resident who works in finance, said she took issue with how the city has approached reviewing the police.

“Normally you come up with the plan or come up with the budget before you cut a budget, so this was done backwards,” McGrath said.

After the City Council cut the Police Department’s budget by 10% this summer, Josh Wallace was moved from his former full-time position as the school resource officer to a patrol unit, and Chief Jody Kasper said there would not be an officer in the school unless the funding situation changed.

McGrath said her daughter, a high school student, was receiving pornographic images on Snapchat. She didn’t tell her parents, but “she went to the school safety officer, Officer Wallace, and he gave her help. That’s because she trusted him. He had a rapport with the kids,” she said.

Subcommittee reports

Before the public spoke, commission members from each of its three subcommittees discussed the work they have done so far.

Booker Bush, chairperson of the Alternatives to Policing Subcommittee, said the group was looking at alternative ways to respond to calls related to mental health. Subcommittee member Alex Jarrett, who is also a city councilor, said they are also doing research on domestic violence and substance abuse.

“Those are also issues we will be going into more depth on, in terms of alternatives,” he said.

Nick Fleisher, chairman of the Policing Policies and Services Subcommittee, said the group is looking at issues such as how the department handles complaints, police training, and how the department spends its time.

“Our police department is going to have an important role in any model of community safety that is recommended by our commission,” Fleisher said. “Our subcommittee seeks to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the current policing system and see ways to strengthen existing structures in meaningful ways.”

Lois Ahrens of the Spending and Contracts Subcommittee said the group has been looking at years of financial information and contracts, as well as looking at ways to transfer some of the department’s responsibilities and funding to other departments. The subcommittee wants to see the funding that was cut from the department’s budget over the summer reallocated, Ahrens said.

“We would like to make recommendations to the mayor about where and how these funds could be reallocated within the city to improve community safety and invest in community resources that serve the most vulnerable, including but not limited to warming shelters, community centers, and meeting public sanitation needs in the downtown area,” Ahrens said.

The commission’s final report is due by mid-March.

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




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