Northampton police review panel calls for new community care department

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, right, and Police Capt. John Cartledge march with the Northampton police department down Main Street during a Northampton Memorial Day parade Monday in Florence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2021 9:31:20 AM

NORTHAMPTON — After 60 meetings, more than 50 hours of public comment, and three public hearings, the city’s Policing Review Commission has finalized its report, “Reimagining Safety.”

The commission recently submitted the 58-page report to the mayor’s office and the City Council, and it has been posted online. Recommendations include the reallocation of police department funding cut last year, changes to policies such as how internal affairs investigations are handled, and creating a new department to respond to some public safety calls.

The report will be formally discussed at a joint meeting of the City Council and mayor on March 30.

Mayor David Narkewicz and the City Council created the panel last summer after many called for the city to cut the police department’s budget in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. The commission was tasked with reviewing the police department and making recommendations on changes to policing and public safety.

One of the report’s major recommendations is the creation of a Department of Community Care, a new department independent of the police that would respond to some public safety needs. The functions of community care would include peer response to mental health and substance use crises, according to the report.

“This department ultimately needs to be available for the community with 24/7 staffing to support responses but may start smaller such as staffing for high call volume times and then scale up services and supports,” the report states. The report highlights such programs in Eugene, Oregon; and Denver and Dallas.

“This is not a new concept. This is being done in several cities,” commission co-chair Cynthia Suopis said.

“With all the comment we had, it really came down to people wanted to feel safe in the community they live and work in,” Suopis said of recommending the new department.

The commission asks that at least the funding that was cut from the police department last summer — a reduction of more than $800,000 — be put into the Department of Community Care.

Other cities have started mobile crisis response programs that cost half a million dollars each year, commission co-chair Dan Cannity said. “Our ideal is that it’s budgeted in 2022, so the budget that’s coming up, and it would be fully operational in 2023,” he said.

The commission recommends that the Department of Community Care be integrated with the city’s dispatch system. Suopis and Cannity observed the city’s dispatchers at work as part of the commission’s review.

“We saw the Northampton folks already doing that — already within a matter of seconds knowing what call goes where,” Cannity said. “It’s just integrating a new option for them for some of these calls,” Cannity said.

Suopis added, “This can open up more possibilities so there isn’t a police response to every 911 call that comes in.”

They also suggest that the new department be staffed by civilian advocates, peer responders, or “individuals who have lived experience and required training and/or certification to respond to non-violent emergencies”; and co-responders, or “individuals with training and/or certification who could respond to crises with police or other emergency response departments.”

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said she’s reviewed the commission’s final report and said she will be tuning in to the special joint meeting of the mayor and council next week when they discuss the report.

“I 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. Other recommendations require further examination,” Kasper wrote in an email. “The report makes clear that police work is a critical component of city services.”

The report also suggests an unarmed person respond to wellness checks and reports of suspicious persons who are not imminently violent.

“We feel that many such calls can be rooted in racial stereotypes and that an armed police officer should not be the presumed response,” the report states of calls for people reported as suspicious.

Though the report suggests changing how the city responds to some public safety calls, police should still respond to situations such as violent felonies, major public disturbances, the sale of drugs, major car crashes, active shooters, and investigations of serious crimes, the commission concluded.

The commission also suggests a safe work hour cap for officers, noting that some are working many detail hours. The report cites police detail pay for some officers reaching tens of thousands of dollars each year.

“We are concerned about officers overworking, which represents potential danger to the community in that they are driving at high speeds and carrying weapons,” the report states.

It also suggests that civilians do traffic flagging. “The Commission feels that there is no reason for armed police officers to be directing traffic at the Recycling Center, in front of schools, community events, or at construction sites,” the report reads. “These jobs could be handled by trained civilian community peer-responders or co-responders.”

The commission analyzed several years’ worth of internal affairs reports and the department’s policy and practice, which the report says is “clearly inadequate.” Suggestions for change include that “investigation of complaints should not be done by the Chief, nor should it be exclusively by coworkers of the officer against whom the complaint has been lodged.”

Two subcommittees met with Kasper for an hour each, Suopis said, and the commission made information requests to the department.

In reflections at the end of the report, member Nnamdi Pole writes that he “believes that the entire NPRC (Northampton Policing Review Commission) process was flawed by giving insufficient time and attention to testimony from members of the Northampton Police Department (NPD) and their supporters.”

Cannity commented that officers “did have the option to come and speak just like anyone else, but it is complicated — it’s their department that’s being looked at in a lot of ways.”

He added, “a lot of this isn’t about the individual officers,” rather it’s about the city’s approach to public safety.

At least one member thinks the report doesn’t go far enough. Member Josey Rosales wrote in a reflection that the commission “anchored the work of this commission in a milquetoast appeal to the status quo with a bit of meaningful harm reduction.”

Rosales added, “I sit here at the end of the process deflated that my name will end up on a report that I don’t believe at its heart was as radical as it could have been, and we could have been so radically transformative.”

The commission does not have the power to implement the recommendations. The meeting of the council and mayor on March 30 at 6 p.m. via Zoom willstart the process of next steps.

“Really the impetus now lies with the mayor who’s going to be writing the budget and the City Council and how they react to it,” Cannity said.

The entire report can be found on the city’s website, at northamptonma.gov/2182/Policing-Review-Commission.

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




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