Crowd at Northampton council meeting protests $75K request for police tactical gear

  • Northampton Police Station

Staff Writer
Published: 3/1/2018 11:48:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Objections to the Police Department’s request for $75,000-worth of tactical gear and training drew a large crowd to Thursday’s City Council meeting.

People packed into council chambers, spilling into the hallway and onto the floor, for the public hearing on the city’s five-year capital improvement plan.

The plan is required by the city’s charter to be updated every year. Payment for the capital projects is accomplished through a variety of sources, including borrowing, free cash and reserve funds.

In total, $80,648,474 worth of capital projects were presented in this year’s plan, including everything from paving to gravestone restoration.

“This document is really a planning document,” Mayor David Narkewicz said in presenting the plan.

One request for fiscal 2019 is $75,000 for tactical equipment and training for the Police Department. Requests for the same amount of money for fiscal 2021 and 2023 were also included in this year’s plan, for a total of $225,000.

Despite objections, the City Council’s committee on finance gave a unanimous positive recommendation on a $1.486 million appropriation that included the $75,000 for protective/tactical equipment and training for fiscal 2019.

The full council then approved the police request by a 7-1 vote, with Ward 7’s Alisa Klein voting against, after carving out and debating the $75,000 as an individual item.

Narkewicz said Wednesday that the request was akin to requests for tactical equipment in previous fiscal years. He also said he had not hidden the request in the budget.

He said the tactical items replace equipment the department already has, and the request includes training to deal with active shooter situations.

At the meeting itself, Narkewicz noted that the department’s tactical gear has a shelf life, just like the fire protection gear that the Fire Department uses.

When asked for a breakdown of the item by a crowd member, Narkewicz read a letter from Police Chief Jody Kasper, which asserted that there was nothing new about the request.

“The vast majority of this money is used to replace existing equipment,” said Narkewicz, reading from the letter.

He then read the chief’s breakdown of the fiscal 2019 request, which included holsters, firearms, shields, gas masks, pepper ball guns and less-lethal launchers.

On the issue of shields, the letter noted that they are not only used for crowd control, noting their use in the recent serving of a search warrant where the subject was known to have an assault rifle.

Kasper’s letter asserted that the request represents no change in policy. She also said that Northampton Police do not own any “riot suits.”

The crowd appeared to be heavily opposed to funding the tactical equipment and training. Some carried signs such as “Make Government Non-Violent,” “END The Drug War,” “Demilitarize Northampton,” and “Lay Down Your Guns.”

“We don’t have enough material for our schools,” said Tom Burton.

Objections by the approximately 30 speakers appeared to center on the riot gear and less lethal weaponry, and a fear that some of the equipment would indeed be used against protesters was expressed by many in attendance.

“Please take a moment to envision these weapons being used against you,” said Paige-Hendry Bodnar.

Some of those who spoke described harrowing experiences they’d had with police while protesting peacefully outside of Northampton.

Jennifer Fronc noted her bad experiences with the police outside of Northampton, including being injured by a riot shield in a peaceful protest in New York City.

Jason Kotoch related how he had been struck by a non-lethal munition while feeding steelworkers at a peaceful protest in Miami, which fractured his skull and necessitated three surgeries.

“I almost died,” he said.

He then noted how a number of people have been killed by non-lethal weapons in the United States.

“These weapons are dangerous,” he said. He said the United States has a history of crushing dissent with the equipment being requested.

Story Young said the money should be used to fund other things.

“Militarization is not the answer,” she said “Please vote to deny.”

Dana Goldblatt, a Northampton attorney, said that serving search warrants with riot gear is a change from how things were done two decades ago.

She also said active shooter trainings have been shown not to work.

“This is not where our money should be going,” she said.

She then proposed “radical disarmament.”

“If an active shooter incident happens, we won’t be ready,” Goldblatt said. “But we’ll be peaceful.”

One person who spoke out in favor of the proposal was Susan Maguire, who said she and her wife were there to support the police, with whom she said she’d had many positive experiences, including when she marched in Northampton’s first Pride Parade.

“This is a police department that cares,” Maguire said.

She also said the request was for equipment that the police already have.

“This is just replacing equipment,” she said.

Council discussion

The City Council voted to carve out the $75,000 for discussion from the appropriation and discuss it separately.

Klein noted her past service in the Israeli Army.

“I know in my own flesh what it means to become militarized,” said Klein.

She noted that the Police Department still had funds left over in this category from past years, and said that she wasn’t comfortable voting for the appropriation at this time.

Klein also brought up the idea of a civilian oversight and accountability board for the police.

Councilor-At-Large William Dwight likened the equipment to the department’s ladder truck, in that he couldn’t recall the truck having been used but that it was there for a possibility.

“I am sympathetic,” he said, of the concerns that had been presented.

At the same time, he said that he felt the Police Department was being characterized in a manner that it had not earned.

Ward 3 Councilor James Nash said that trust needed to be built, but said that he did not think that building such trust would be created by cutting the police budget.

“I do not see a militarized police force,” said Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell.

“It has not been used,” said Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge, speaking of the equipment.

Klein made a motion to refer the measure to the council's city services committee, which was seconded by Dwight. However, after some discussion, she chose to withdraw it, while adding that she would continue the conversation on policing in Northampton.

Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Carney wasn’t present at the meeting.




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