Northampton council restricts surveillance technology in city

  • Northampton Police Station

Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2017 10:48:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Surveillance cameras once again dominated discussion at Thursday’s City Council meeting, with councilors approving an ordinance that would restrict the installation of new permanent, municipally operated surveillance technology in the central business district.

The ordinance, which the council approved on first reading on a 7-1 vote, would contain exceptions for time-limited criminal investigations, parking structures, emergency situations, and the cameras on the police station on Central Street — exceptions that were added by amendment in the council’s legislative matters committee.

Mayor David Narkewicz said he will veto the ordinance, should it pass the council on its second reading. The mayor said he believed he had used the veto power only one time previously as mayor.

A veto must include a written explanation, and can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

The ordinance sprang from a proposal Police Chief Jody Kasper first put forward in September to add surveillance cameras downtown. This kicked off a backlash from members of the public, and caused some members of the City Council to move to legislatively block such an action.

Unlike in previous council meetings, where the public comment period was overwhelmingly against surveillance cameras, Thursday featured a large number of people opposing the ordinance.

A number of the complaints against the ordinance centered on criticisms of the process by which it has been developed, characterizing the debate surrounding it as uncivil, even threatening.

“I was afraid to come here and speak,” said Sally Griggs, an ordinance opponent, who said that she did so out of civic duty.

“Where’s the thoughtful process?” said Roni Gold, who said he was undecided about the cameras, but did not like the process surrounding the ordinance.

Others voiced their support for cameras on principal, including Jim Winston, who characterized them as safety cameras.

“Safety cameras can change people’s behaviors,” he said.

Alan Verson said he suspects that the majority of Northampton residents are in favor of the cameras.

“I don’t feel threatened by the cameras,” he said.

Verson also said that passing the resolution would be insulting to Kasper, something some other ordinance opponents also asserted.

For her part, Kasper said that while the amendments to the ordinance had improved it, she was still opposed.

“Cameras are a powerful evidentiary tool,” she said. “They often make the difference between solving a crime and not solving a crime.”

She also objected to anti-police rhetoric she’d heard when the issue was debated in previous meetings, and she noted that her officers had recently saved two people attempting suicide.

For their part, a number of ordinance supporters expressed their respect for Kasper. Many also objected to the negative characterization of the debate over the ordinance.

“We’ve all had the opportunity to participate,” said Amy Bookbinder. “This is how democracy works.”

“I think there have been ample opportunities for people to engage on this issue,” said Sarah Field.

In the debate amongst the councilors, most expressed support for the ordinance.

“The ordinance is not a ban,” said At-large Councilor Ryan O’Donnell, one of the main pushers of the ordinance, characterizing it instead as a legislative check.

He said the ordinance will act as a mechanism to require democratic discussion on the issue of surveillance. O’Donnell also backed the expansion of community policing.

“I’m morally opposed to it,” said City Council President William Dwight, speaking of surveillance.

Dwight, an ordinance co-sponsor, also contested criticisms of the process, asserting that the process has been more thorough than ordinances that are passed on a regular basis. He also reasserted his “profound respect” for Kasper.

“I actually had to fight to get her to be our police chief,” he said.

“I believe we’ve done just the opposite,” said Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein, another co-sponsor, at the assertion that the process had stifled debate.

Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell, a steady opponent of the effort to pass resolutions and ordinances on the camera issue, remained a dissenter, saying that he did not think the ordinance strikes a proper balance between civil liberties and public safety.

“It’s our job, sometimes, to arrive at compromise,” he said.

Bidwell expressed appreciation for the quality and variety of the commentary that evening, especially ordinance opponents, saying the treatment of those who didn’t object to cameras at early events had created a chilling effect.

The other dissenter on the issue, Ward 5 Councilor David Murphy, was not present at the meeting because of an excused absence.

Ward 3 Councilor James Nash said that he’s been on the fence for the debate on cameras, but that he voted for the ordinance because he appreciated how it clarified the resolution previously passed by the council.

And Ward 6’s Marianne LaBarge explained her yes vote by saying, “This is a civil rights issue to me.”

A resolution opposing the installation of additional security cameras downtown was passed by the council on a 7-2 vote on its second reading on Nov. 2. Resolutions reflect the opinion of the council, but carry no legal weight.


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