Northampton City Council pressed to cut police budget in marathon session

  • The Northampton Police Station on Center Street.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2020 10:40:05 AM

NORTHAMPTON — At around 2 a.m. on Friday morning, city councilors voted to continue their discussion on the proposed city budget to a future date. Much of their discussion surrounded a proposed increase to the Police Department’s budget.

Their eight-hour City Council meeting, held over Zoom, drew hundreds of people, many of whom spoke during a hearing on the proposed budget and asked the council to reject a nearly $200,000 increase in Police Department spending and instead cut its funding. The previous evening, more than 500 people attended a City Council hearing with the same requests.

Councilors said they were moved by the outpouring from constituents. “The enormity is unprecedented,” said At-Large Councilor Bill Dwight.

“I have never received so many emails for as long as I’ve been a councilor,” Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LeBarge said. “I have never heard strong voices like that in 21 years. It hit me right in the heart.”

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 about $45,000 will go toward replacing several cruisers with hybrid vehicles, according to Police Chief Jody Kasper.

The extra funding comes amid a difficult financial year, as the city is feeling the financial 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.

The City Council is only able to delete or decrease amounts in the budget and is not able to increase any items, per the city charter.

“What we are witnessing is nothing new,” Ward 4 Councilor John Thorpe said during the budget discussion. “From the Watts riots in California in 1965, Rodney King in the 1992 riots, to Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and numerous others before them.

“I want to make it clear I respect Chief Kasper and the work she does,” he said. But he encouraged the council to look at new ideas that constituents shared in emails. “We need to address institutional racism in concrete ways,” Thorpe said.

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore called for “bold action.”

“What I want to make clear is I am looking for alternatives to policing, not just progressive policing,” she said.

“I have a deep appreciation for Chief Kasper,” said councilor Karen Foster. “She is listening. I have seen her be willing to consider these issues … I believe she’s someone we can work with on reform.”

Ward 1 Councilor Michael Quinlan expressed worry that a spending reduction would mean cutting police jobs. He wondered if cutting just the funding for vehicles would be better.

“You have the right to cut that and delete items,” Narkewicz said, but “this is not an interactive process where we’re moving around money together. It’s really to have the ability to make cuts to the budget and I will obviously honor those that need to be made.”

He said that education funding was increased by nearly 4.5% and the budget for public health was nearly doubled. “This is not an expansion,” he said of the funding increase for police. “It is maintaining level services.”

Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett made a motion to remove $193,579 from the Police Department budget — the entirety of the proposed increase — and Dwight seconded the motion. But councilors later voted nearly unanimously to continue the discussion at a later date this month.

Earlier in the meeting, residents spoke during the hourslong public hearing that was a continuation of Wednesday evening’s hearing.

“I’ve dealt with addiction,” one Ward 5 resident said Thursday night. “I think the only reason I was able to get through and get sober is because I didn’t have to deal with the police — because I had a house, because I had access to a therapist. We should be doing the work to make sure everyone has these opportunities. That is the only way to make a community safe.”

Sara Howard, a parent of two children in Northampton Public Schools, said a police officer in the schools is an issue. “The presence of a police officer in the Northampton schools does not make me feel safer. Instead, it sends the message that we expect violence from our children and we will meet it with more violence.”

Several people shared personal stories about their encounters with city police.

Eric Matlock was arrested and pepper-sprayed on the steps of City Hall in August 2017 is now seeking $700,000 in damages in a lawsuit alleging police used excessive force.

“You don’t recognize us as an asset to our community,” he said, addressing his message to Chief Kasper. “You choose to criminalize us. We are brown, we are gay, bi and trans, and we are houseless and we are disabled. The police don’t protect us here. They drive us out. You are part of the problem because you try to claim it doesn’t exist.”

Cailin, a resident who did not provide a last name, said they ran away from home at age 16 amid a domestic violence crisis. “ “Eventually I did make the most regrettable decision of my life, which was to return to the Northampton PD for help … I won’t even begin to detail how they only worsened my trauma.”

Earlier in the meeting, LaBarge said she’s never had an issue with the police. “I have to say that. But I have a nephew of color that has had a problem, and who was targeted at when he was younger. You don’t forget things like that.”

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