Northampton police review panel submits initial report

  • Northampton Police Station GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/11/2021 8:06:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — If your sibling was being evicted from their apartment, how would you want them to be helped?

Daniel Cannity, chairman of the Northampton Policing Review Commission, posed the question to the City Council on Thursday evening.

“By a police officer or by a caseworker who can assist them with obtaining alternate housing?” he said, noting that he was quoting commission member Booker Bush. “If a community has nothing else to offer, the police become the answer.”

Cannity was presenting the commission’s 29-page preliminary report, which details the work that its subcommittees — Alternatives to Policing, Policies and Services, and Spending and Contracts — has done so far to study the Northampton Police Department and recommend reforms.

A set of formal recommendations from the commission are not in the report, though suggestions and potential ones are. Cannity told the council that he thinks that “this is not going to be a single document that says, ‘OK do these things and we’re good.’ It’s going to be more of a process in terms of the recommendations we make.”

The joint commission of the City Council and mayor’s office was proposed after residents asked the council to make significant cuts to the Police Department budget last year amid a national outcry over police brutality.

In the commission’s preliminary report, the Policing and Services subcommittee suggests reducing police encounters in traffic enforcement, because across the nation people of color are disproportionally stopped, the report notes, with potential solutions such as enforcing minor traffic violations electronically.

About 20% of calls to the Police Department are “behaviorally based disturbances,” including mental health-related issues, according to the report.

“The NPD policies show a basic understanding of mental illness as not dangerous and substance abuse as an illness,” the report reads. “The model of intervention, however, does not address the inherent conflicts in having armed authority figures confronting individuals sensitized to police intervention by past trauma or by racial and ethnic experiences.”

The subcommittee plans to invite Police Chief Jody Kasper to speak with them, and it plans to continue to investigate specific police services, including procedures to investigate complaints and qualified immunity.

Factual inaccuracies

Kasper said in an email Monday that she had reviewed the report and said there were some factual inaccuracies in the report, as she described it, including a figure about the number of officers who are trained to investigate rape compared to those who operate drones, and the accounting of patrol officers’ time.

“It is critically important for members of the Northampton community to understand that for a city of nearly 30,000 people, we routinely operate at our minimum staffing level of only five officers on the street,” Kasper wrote.

She also added, “While we fully support the need to thoughtfully study how the City can best respond to matters of public safety and public health, we are concerned about potential cuts to staffing and how that will impact our agency’s ability to effectively provide emergency response services to our community members.”

The Spending and Contracts subcommittee has been analyzing how the department uses its funding, and it has made information requests to the Police Department to better understand how the department uses its time, according to the report.

In looking at gross pay from fiscal year 2020, which includes off-duty detail and overtime, the report says that “Police officers represent the majority of the highest-paid city employees, including many making more than the mayor.”

It also notes concern that police officers are working too many hours, “which represents potential danger to the community in that they are driving at high speeds and carrying weapons. While we believe in a person’s right to earn a decent living, we see trends which seem to show a significant difference between base salary and actual pay.”

The report states the commission is exploring ways to allocate money generated from policing toward the support of “new initiatives,” such as social services, and creating alternatives to a police response in cases related to mental health issues and domestic violence.

Budget issues

Throughout Thursday’s council meeting, Cannity also emphasized reinvestment.

“When we look at the movement to defund,” he said referencing calls to defund the police, “it’s also calling for a reinvestment — that anytime we take away something from the police department, if we’re taking away money we need to take away responsibilities and put those back into the people who can do it who are the best situated for that task.”

Cannity said that in the shorter term the commission would like to see funding that was cut from the police department budget over the summer reallocated to efforts such as warming shelters and the community resilience hub the city is developing.

According to the mayor, cuts enacted by the City Council have totaled $882,602 to the mayor’s proposed Police Department budget for the current fiscal year. The reduction in spending reduced the use of Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund money needed to balance the budget from $935,020 to $52,418, according to the mayor. It also resulted in cuts to five full-time police positions when the council voted in a 10% reduction to the Police Department budget last June.

On Monday, Mayor David Narkewicz wrote in an email that he informed the council at the time that it was “more prudent to reduce our dependence on one-time, non-recurring Fiscal Stability funds rather than spend them on other items, particularly given that we did not know the duration and economic impacts of COVID-19 on our FY2021 local and state revenues and would most likely need to revisit our budget projections in the fall in order to set our tax rate.”

“The deep cuts made to the Northampton Police Department budget by the City Council in the eleventh hour of the city budget process with no advance study or planning did not free up recurring operating revenue but rather reduced our use of one-time Fiscal Stability reserves to balance the operating budget,” he wrote. “Given the ongoing budget uncertainties both for the remaining half of FY2021 as well as the uncertain fiscal picture for the FY2022 budget, my position on this matter remains unchanged.”

Narkewicz said he later came back to the City Council in November and asked for more than $350,000 more in reserves “to further shore up lagging local and state revenues in order to balance the budget and have our 2021 tax rate certified by the Department of Revenue.”

Crisis intervention

The Alternatives to Policing subcommittee suggests different ways to respond to mental health-related calls, including a “peer responder model.” The report states that “there are innovative models of response and de-escalation involving the use of peers, who are individuals having lived experience whose wisdom and experience can be effective in helping and connecting with individuals in crisis. Peers can work independently or can work in collaboration with professionals.” The report summarizes other programs from around the country that have taken different approaches.

The subcommittee also addresses policing and domestic violence, suggesting investments in programming to prevent domestic violence and the exploration of restorative justice options.

After Cannity presented the preliminary report to the council, councilors commented and asked a variety of questions.

“Thank you for committing to this,” At-Large Councilor William Dwight said. “I know that it’s a hell of a transition going from advocating for one thing and actually working to create it.”

Ward 1 Councilor Michael Quinlan, who is a member of the commission, also commended Cannity for his work.

“I was disappointed that we lost three of the four women of color who are on the commission,” he said, noting that they could no longer make the meetings.

Three commission members have left — Dana Olivo, Carmen Lopez and Larissa Rivera-Gonzalez — Cannity said at the meeting.

The commission’s final report is due by mid-March. The entire preliminary report is available on the city’s website.

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




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