Police chief: Walmart rescinds $13K ammo donation

  • The Northampton Police Department. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2018 12:00:31 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The mayor has withdrawn a measure to accept a donation of $13,000 in ammunition from Walmart to the city’s police department after the police chief told him the donation had been withdrawn following heated opposition at last week’s City Council meeting.

Mayor David Narkewicz received an email on Monday from Police Chief Jody Kasper, who said Walmart’s decision to rescind the gift “was communicated verbally” to a firearms instructor on Sunday morning. In her message, Kasper said the ammunition would have saved the city money and helped with firearms training.

“My understanding is that Walmart was surprised at the pushback related to their intended donation to the City,” Kasper said. “I can’t blame them.”

When reached by telephone, the King Street Walmart’s store manager Jeffrey Jacobs would not say whether the donation had indeed been withdrawn, and if so why. He instead referred the Gazette to Walmart’s national media relations department, which did not respond to questions Wednesday.

The gift of ammunition drew critical public comment and debate when it came before the City Council last week. Some residents criticized the donation, arguing that police should be looking to reduce — not increase — their weapons stockpiles.

“We should be able to say fewer police, fewer guns, less ammo, and somehow we can’t,” Northampton attorney Dana Goldblatt said at the time.

Others, including Councilor At-Large William Dwight, took issue with the corporate giant potentially getting a tax write-off for the donation.

In her email to Narkewicz, Kasper connected the criticism of Walmart’s donation to two previous debates in the council’s chambers. Kasper cited her proposal to install city-run security cameras downtown in 2017, which subsequently resulted in the council passing an ordinance restricting security camera use there. She also referred to an instance earlier this year when some opposed the council giving the police $75,000 for tactical and protective gear.

“Within City Council chambers, matters involving the police department quickly shift to aggressive anti-police rhetoric from a small number of community members,” Kasper wrote to Narkewicz. “Despite our dedication, recognition, and leadership in the field, we continue to experience a growing anti-police narrative in the very community that we serve so well.”

In an interview Wednesday, Kasper said that the criticism has had a negative impact on staff morale and the department’s ability to recruit and retain officers. When asked for specifics, she said the department currently has two vacancies, with both officers leaving for other western Massachusetts departments.

“We’re losing officers with years on the job,” she said, attributing those decisions to lower pay for officers in Northampton as well as an “unwelcoming” attitude from some in the community.

However, lawyer and former City Councilor Jesse Adams, who was chairman of the council’s committee on public safety, said it is not accurate to suggest that police officers are leaving because of “anti-police” sentiment.

“High turnover has been going on for a long time,” Adams said, adding that the reasons for that turnover are that other departments pay larger salaries and know that Northampton officers are well-trained. “Any attempts to link scrutiny of the department with high turnover is simply incorrect.”

In her letter, Kasper said that the department is widely recognized for its “progressive work” and policing models. When asked whether the department is more “progressive” because of the community’s strong oversight of the police during public meetings, Kasper said, “No.”

“They don’t want police to exist, they don’t believe police should have firearms,” Kasper said of some critics who have spoken up at City Council meetings. “A lot of the work we’ve gotten done has been with community partners who talk to us,” she said, giving as an example the department’s Drug Addiction and Recovery Team.

Adams said he thinks the City Council should have accepted the gift instead of moving the question to committee. But Adams is troubled with Kasper’s rhetoric about critics being “anti-police” — during the surveillance debate and now.

“I’m concerned about a trend that I’ve noticed forming that the police department — which I’m a big supporter of — seems to try to stop scrutiny of the department when the council does something it doesn’t like,” he said.

Narkewicz forwarded Kasper’s email to City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, formally withdrawing the measure to accept Walmart’s gift. At last week’s City Council meeting, Narkewicz expressed his own frustration with the council’s decision to send consideration of the donation to the committee on city services for further discussion on Jan. 7.

“Since I made my own concerns about the City Council’s consideration of this measure very clear at Thursday’s meeting I will not restate them again here,” Narkewicz wrote to O’Donnell. “Suffice it to say that I fully support and endorse the concerns raised by Chief Kasper in her email.”

In an email Wednesday to Kasper and Narkewicz, O’Donnell invited the mayor and police chief to sit down with him and the council vice-president to discuss the issues raised in Kasper’s email to the mayor on Monday.

“I must tell you honestly that the characterization of the City Council as insufficiently supportive of the Police Department troubles me,” O’Donnell wrote. “The fact is that with the exception of a 2017 proposal to add surveillance cameras downtown, the City Council has approved every request the Police Department has made, at least during my tenure, including the protective equipment referenced in the email.”

He email continues: “Insofar as these concerns relate to rhetoric used by members of the public who speak before the City Council rather than the nine councilors themselves (a distinction that is important to make), I can only say that the Northampton City Council does not censor members of the public. We hear everyone who wishes to speak, regardless of the content of that speech. Please know that this practice, also, will continue.

The rescinded ammunition donation is not the first time the Walmart on King Street has donated to the Northampton Police Department.

Walmart gave $2,500 to city police in 2017 to fund an initiative that saw officers handing out their own personal trading cards to children. The program was launched to strengthen police ties with the community following the cancellation, amid public criticism, of “High-Five Friday” — a short-lived initiative to have police visit the city’s elementary schools to give high fives to students.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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