Mayor, council air Northampton police review panel’s report

  • Protesters stand atop a wall at the Northampton police station during a rally against police violence and racism, June 1. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2021 5:26:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Policing Review Commission co-chairs Dan Cannity and Cynthia Suopis observed the city’s dispatchers for several hours. Suopis recalled thinking of some calls, “Wow, someone else could answer that call, not a uniformed, armed individual.”

The commission’s major recommendation would make that a reality.

The group finalized its 58-page report in mid-March and spoke about it with the City Council and mayor for nearly four hours at a special joint meeting Tuesday evening.

Cannity went through the report’s recommendations.

“The biggest is a new Department of Community Care that exists independent of the Police Department, and includes peer responders that are going to be housed within the city,” he said, adding that peer responders would be unarmed.

The department would respond to nonviolent calls through the city’s dispatch system.

“This is just giving them another tool and another place where calls can go,” Cannity said.

Mayor David Narkewicz and the City Council created the police review panel last summer and asked its members to review the Police Department and make recommendations on changes to policing and public safety. The moves came in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, which prompted many area residents to call for Northampton to cut the Police Department’s budget — something the council did by 10%.

“We looked at this not from the perspective of how do you improve what we have, but get to the question of what is safety to begin with?” Cannity told the mayor and City Council. “And then going from there to say, how do we get that?”

The proposed community care department would include responses to mental health and substance use crises.

“If one of my children needed a mental health call,” panel member Booker Bush said, “I’d rather have people trained in social work coming to see my son or daughter rather than an armed police officer to do that call, which is the way things are now. I think that’s really the essence of our report.”

In addition to the new department, the report’s suggestions include:

■allocating the Police Department funds cut last year to the community care department;

■changes to policies such as how internal affairs investigations are handled; and

■an evaluation of the department’s staffing levels.

Outside contract?

At-large City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra asked about the advantages of making the program a city department.

“We also want to make sure it’s equivalent to the Police Department, the Fire Department, the EMS response, in terms of their status,” Cannity said.

Narkewicz also asked about contracting the services to an outside agency with city funding, noting that the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) programs in Eugene, Oregon, which the report cites as a model, is run by a nonprofit.

“We don’t currently have the infrastructure or the bandwidth to run an agency like this within city government,” he said.

Panel member Elizabeth Barajas-Roman said there would be more accountability with a city department than with an outside organization.

“There’s an accountability structure built in,”she said.

“These are really hard questions,” Bush said. “We need a centralized place where people would find it more simple to gain access to services.”

Alex Jarrett, the Ward 5 city councilor who was a member of the commission, asked “Why don’t we contract out police, fire or medical services?”

Councilors don’t write the budget, but they do approve it, Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster noted. “I would hope to see a budget that includes a city department for all the reasons we’ve discussed here,” she said.

Narkewicz also asked the commissioners about the timing of suggestions like a strategic plan, a needs assessment and a new department. “I’m curious how you see the timing of this happening.”

The priority should be the new department, said commission member Javier Luengo-Garrido. “That’s the highest-impact action the city can take.”

Cannity added that the new department and assessments can be done concurrently. The report recommends that the new department be up and running by fiscal year 2023.

Police input

Foster asked the commission about gaps in its report and work it didn’t get to.

Member Nnamdi Pole said the group “might have benefited from inviting input from the Police Department more from the beginning … but I think that we kind of, in my view, went too far in the other direction and were unnecessarily sort of hostile to influence from the Northampton Police Department and hearing their point of view.”

Despite that, the report is “a credible consensus,” he said.

Member Josey Rosales disagreed about getting more police input.

“Part of the reason I feel this way is because the police are members of this community just as any of the other people who attended any of our open comments,” Rosales said, adding that officers chose not to attend.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, who had said she would be tuning in for Tuesday’s discussion, stated in previous comments on the review panel’s report that she “was pleased to see support for mental health and addiction co-responders, the development of a strategic plan for the Police Department, and the creation of a Resilience Hub for people experiencing homelessness.”

Barajas-Roman brought up another issue. “We did lose all of the women of color on this commission except for myself and ended up with a deep imbalance of gender on this commission,” she said. “The recommendations of this commission are limited by that.”

The commission was time-intensive, and listening to testimony also was “deeply traumatic for people who have experienced trauma at the hands of police,” she said, adding that “these aren’t things we learned in sociology classes. These are things we lived. And are continuing to live.”

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore said she wished she had more aggressively pursued the idea of stipends for members.

The report recommends the Police Department create a safe cap on the amount of hours officers work, noting that in one circumstance, an officer worked more than 100 hours a week including overtime and detail hours.

A hundred hours “is not anywhere what any officer has worked on average in recent years, including our highest-earning detail officers. I think there’s a disconnect there,” Narkewicz said.

The department has a limit, too, he said. “We do have time limits on how much officers can work,” he said.

Cannity said the policy the commission received said safe staffing limits are 16 hours a day, and he wasn’t sure about weekly limits.

Bush agreed there’s an issue with figures about overtime.

“I hope we don’t get lost in that discussion so that we don’t pay attention to what we think we can change (about) policing and do in a different way,” he said.

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


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