Easthampton councilors want to review city laws for possible bias

  • Easthampton Precinct 3 City Councilor Thomas Peake speaks to about 200 people at a rally in Easthampton's Pulaski Park organized by the group 01027: A Knee Is Not Enough on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2020 6:51:10 PM

EASTHAMPTON — An ordinance review that promises to look at the city’s laws for systemic racial bias will be brought before the City Council at its Wednesday meeting.

The review is set to be introduced by City Councilor Thomas Peake, with the co-sponsorship of City Councilor Salem Derby and City Councilor Homar Gomez.

“I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go from here,” Peake said.

Peake, the chair of the council’s Rules and Government Relations Committee, said the city charter suggests an ordinance review every 10 years.

Gomez, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he sees the ordinance review as a follow up to the council’s Welcoming Community Trust Ordinance which, among other things, forbids city employees from inquiring about someone’s immigration status unless required by law. And he said that he wants to make sure that no one in the city is being discriminated against.

“That’s the idea behind it,” Gomez said.

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May focused much of the nation on racism and police violence. Peake said while training and screening for bias for police officers is important, “none of that matters if the laws you’re enforcing are inherently unjust.”

“In light of the challenges that surely all of us have received from constituents asking us what we can do to be more anti-racist as a city, I believe that now is an opportune moment to take a hard look at the role that legislative bodies like our own have played in getting to where we are today,” reads a letter to the council signed by Peake, Derby and Gomez.

“An ordinance review could examine whether any city ordinances are outdated or in need of revision, but I would ask that the council pay extra attention, and potentially engage with outside experts, to examine whether any of our local laws serve to further structural racism, whether intentional or not,” the letter continues.

On Monday, City Council President Peg Conniff expressed support for a review.

“It’s 100% what we need to be focusing on as a legislature,” she said.

And Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said that she found Peake’s effort to be “brilliantly timed.”

“I’m thrilled he’s doing it,” she said. “It’s an amazing exercise to show where we are with implicit bias.”

Police Chief Robert Alberti has also expressed interest in sending a liaison officer to the review, Peake said.

Peake characterized the letter as “by far the broadest, vaguest thing I’ve ever sent to City Council.” The reason for that, he said, was to allow for ample input from different groups in the city. The letter asks that the City Council send the review to the Rules and Government Relations Committee, where more details of the review would be fleshed out.

The scope of the review, and whether it will cover only city ordinances or expand into zoning ordinances and traffic ordinances is a key question, Peake said.

“Looking at everything would be a great idea,” he said, although he was mindful that would entail additional work.

Who might serve on a panel reviewing the ordinances and whether that body would produce a report or a motion are other key questions, Peake said.

In looking over Easthampton’s city ordinances, Peake said he hasn’t seen anything inherently structurally racist.

“But I’m a middle-class white dude,” he said, while also acknowledging he hasn’t read them word for word.

Although he hasn’t spoken to the A Knee Is Not Enough organization in a formal capacity, Peake did speak at the group’s rally Saturday, where he highlighted the ordinance review and asked people to participate in it. A Knee Is Not Enough is a community organization formed this summer that’s been pushing for changes to the Easthampton Police Department.

“We really welcome this as a direct action step,” said Jason Montgomery, speaking on behalf of the organization. “We see this as a really meaningful step toward making change.”

Peake also said that he has talked with the ACLU, and that the organization has expressed interest in the ordinance review.

“This is a unique opportunity for Easthampton,” said Javier Luengo-Garrido, a community organizer and immigrant rights advocate with ACLU Massachusetts.

“I’m personally super excited,” he said. “I’m really hopeful.”

Peake said that, even if nothing is found in Easthampton’s review that requires changes, the review can provide a good example to other communities.

“A lot of city councils look at what the other city councils are doing,” he said.

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