Northampton police review panel takes final public comments

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

Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2021 4:01:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In the final public comment session on proposals for revamping the work of the city’s Police Department, residents again expressed a range of opinions, with some offering support for police, while others described negative interactions with officers and called for the city to develop broader means for responding, in particular to people with mental health problems.

The Northampton Policing Review Commission held the session by Zoom on Saturday, its third public hearing since being formed last September, in preparation for making a final report March 18 to the City Council on recommendations for changes to policing and public safety.

As in past public comment sessions, a number of respondents on Saturday called for having the city move police away from dealing with people experiencing mental health crises and hiring social workers and mental health counselors to do that work. One suggested “embedding” social workers with officers on their shifts so that they could help address some of these issues.

And Marsha Morris, who said she had previously directed a youth program in Boston serving mostly the African American and Latino communities, added that officers are generally not trained to deal with people with mental health issues and that it’s unreasonable to expect them to take on that responsibility without problems occurring.

“Police are asked to deal with mental health issues because society doesn’t adequately address the situation,” said Morris, who also suggested Northampton Police should expand their community policing efforts. “Pulling your gun out should always be your last resort.”

One speaker, Sean — he did not provide a last name — said he had been working as an advocate for people in the mental health system for 10 years and that some of those clients had been treated “with disrespect and sometimes violence” by police when having an emotional crisis, such as a making a threat to commit suicide.

“I know there are probably good people, quote unquote, on the force, but I don’t think the system allows those good people to stay good for very long,” he said.

One man, who did not provide a name and did not appear on camera — a logo saying “Pave the Wave for Abolition” appeared on the screen when he spoke — described himself as a Ward 4 resident and a business owner in that ward, and he read a statement in which he said policing in the U.S. had begun “as a force to protect white landowners.”

Today, he said, “The power that has been given to that institution has grown into an absolute power with military armament and qualified immunity, making the killing of people easier … and the taking of human life inconsequential.” 

But others defended police and spoke of potential harm to the city — and to people experiencing mental health problems, homelessness or other social hardships — if further cuts to the department are made.

Jenny Fleming-Ives, a social worker and health clinician, said she’d spent all her working life trying to help “folks on the margins,” especially with a public health agency downtown (she is a clinician with Tapestry, which had an office on Center Street for over 40 years before moving to a new location on Carlon Drive a few years ago).

Fleming-Ives said when her agency had needed police help in situations that had “unknown, perceived dangers,” officers “were there for us immediately.” She said she was concerned that any significant cuts to the police force would mean “that rapid response to these situations will get lost.”

Another woman who gave her name as Jane Doe said she’d received sensitive and professional treatment from Northampton Police when she was raped some years ago; domestic abuse and sexual crimes in the city remain a serious problem, she maintained, and require an adequate police force for dealing with it.

“We need the police — we need them to be armed,” she said, while adding that she objected to comments made by some residents and some commission members as well that police were “white supremacists” and “fascists.”

Jay Fleitman, a former School Committee member and Health Board chairman, said other American communities and cities that have made deep cuts to their police departments are now struggling with increased crime rates. Fleitman, a doctor, said he’d also seen a number of police officers as patients over the years and heard harrowing stories of some of the crime they’d had to deal with.

People in general need to be more cognizant of the difficulty of that work, he said: “[Police] see things that the rest of us are fortunate not to see.”

But Steve Jones said the instances of police violence against people of color reported in other parts of the country “underlie the need to rethink how police departments operate.” He suggested the city would do well to embrace something similar to a “Community Responders” model used in places like Eugene, Oregon, in which trained civilians handle cases such as homelessness, behavioral health crises and substance use.

Three of the commission members addressed a related question, saying safety services in the city already work with a “triage system” in which emergency dispatchers make a determination on whether the police, the Fire Department, or social workers and mental health specialists should respond to a 911 call. They added that part of the commission’s role is to recommend how that model could be expanded.

Dan Cannity, co-chair of the Policing Review Commission, said there were 117 participants at Saturday’s session, the highest count yet, and he and other panel members welcomed the input.

“There is a lot of energy and emotion around the issues of safety and ensuring it is equitably available for everyone,” he wrote in an email.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 




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