Fact Checking Jody Kasper

Chief Kasper’s exaggerated claims don’t make people safe, they amplify fear

Will Meyer

As many readers already know, our reporting last week about police funding for more riot gear has come under scrutiny, both directly and indirectly, from figures like Police Chief Jody Kasper, Mayor David Narkewicz, and Ward 2 City Councilor Dennis Bidwell.

Councilor Bidwell sent me an email saying that our report was “filled with many inaccuracies” and that Chief Kasper’s memo was “fact-based.” Narkewicz took to Twitter to smear our report—which he dubbed an “unsourced advocacy piece”—as ”performance art.”

In a memo that Mayor Narkewicz requested Chief Kasper produce, Kasper goes through point by point to explain what each piece of tactical equipment and training might be used for. She used the memo to emphasize that this is funding for equipment the NPD already possesses, and that much of the funding will be used to replace equipment the NPD seldom or never has reason to use. She called this capital request ‘routine’ and ‘business as usual.’

After pictures of riot cops circulated on social media and in The Shoestring, Kasper responded, “I recognize that pictures of police in riot gear and the insinuation that we’re looking to transition our department to a militarized entity may be a frightening concept for some. Of course, this assertion is an absolute falsehood.” After learning of Kasper’s criticism, we took down a randomly sourced picture of a riot cop and used a picture from Blarney Blowout, an event where Kasper says this equipment will be used.

She also used her memo to say, “Despite what rumors are swirling through social media, I have absolutely no intent of purchasing all of our staff riot suits and shields or in changing the way that we manage protests and marches. Incidentally, we don’t even own one riot suit and I have no plans to purchase any.” The Shoestring nor any social media posts I am aware of used the term ‘riot suits’, rather the term ‘riot gear’ was used. In the first sentence of the memo, Kasper refers to one of these routine purchases as a ‘riot helmet’. She goes onto say with regards to the shields that “we often have a small number of shields on standby in nearby cruisers in case a peaceful event turns into something else.” The implication made several times in the Chief’s memo was that this equipment won’t be used and will be kept close by just in case. And of course some of this equipment won’t be used at protests at all. But there is no binding legislation or oversight to ensure that.

(For a deeper understanding of what the gear will be used for, see Jules’ column for one perspective and the Chief’s memo for another. Also, the equipment request can be seen on page 238 in the Mayor’s Capital Improvement Plan)

In the third sentence of the memo, Chief Kasper says that “after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there was a renewed focus on preparedness for mass casualty and large-scale events and on the protection of first responders at those scenes.” This is right in line with Chief Kasper’s theory of policing. (During the City Council meeting I read excerpts from Kasper’s 2011 book Progressive Police Supervision that outline the Chief’s philosophy. We also quoted the book in recent pieces.) As I’ve noted before, terrorism was used by Kasper during the surveillance debate to justify increased police power in Northampton.

“On American soil, more people have been killed by falling televisions than by jihadist terrorists since September 11.” Richard Beck, n+1

Of course terrorism—or riots, for that matter—in Northampton is a straw man. As one member of the public, Reed Arahood, noted during the March 1st City Council meeting: “It is my understanding that Northampton has not had a riot since Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 to 1787.” And as Shoestring writer Jules Marsh pointed out to me, a S.W.A.T. team wouldn’t have stopped 9/11. Still, Kasper insists that we must be ready for anything. In the book she poses the following to police administrators:

  • Are you prepared for an attack on [y]our city’s schools?
  • Are you prepared for an anthrax exposure?
  • Are you prepared for an attack using biological warfare?
  • Can you provide adequate safety for major events in your community?
  • Are officers properly trained for these new threats?
  • Can your agency handle a critical incident similar to the attacks in New York City?

You get the idea.

As Richard Beck notes in an essay for n+1 titled “Gun Violence and the War on Terror,” “On American soil, more people have been killed by falling televisions than by jihadist terrorists since September 11.”

Furthermore, in the memo, Chief Kasper has latched onto using last month’s harrowing school shooting in Parkland, Florida to justify the police spending. But as Beck notes in the same essay: “In schools, roughly two hundred children have been killed by gunfire since 2000. That’s almost twelve children a year, or, to put it another way, about three hundredths of 1 percent of the thirty-three thousand Americans who have been killed by gunfire every year, on average, over that time period.” No doubt, despite Kasper’s enthusiasm for active-shooter trainings (which a portion of this capital spending would likely be used for, and has been used for in the past), S.W.A.T. teams, security guards, and armed police officers have been ineffective at best in stopping school shootings.

Beck adds that “Columbine had an armed police officer stationed inside on the day of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s massacre. Half a dozen police were patrolling Virginia Tech’s campus when Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people over the course of two hours.” Parkland also had an armed guard, Scot Peterson, who did not intervene during the shooting. Beck is right to point out that “Cops don’t stop shooters. What they do is target children—police have conducted around a million arrests in public schools since Columbine.” But as I’ve written before, police in Northampton don’t arrest kids, they give them Wal-Mart funded trading cards that idolize the police holding semi-automatic weapons.

After slamming ‘bloggers’ from The Shoestring for not having ‘research based’ opinions on Twitter, Mayor Narkewicz then Tweeted a Gazette article about the NPD completing the International Association of Chiefs of Police sponsored ‘One Mind Challenge’—to help police departments and mental health services work together—that included the following:

“Mental health issues have become a common focus in the law enforcement community in recent years, Police Chief Jody Kasper said, particularly in the wake of mass shootings and controversial police killings.”

The implication is that mentally ill people are the perpetrators of gun violence. But as mental health expert, Alex Spear, noted in the same article, “The biggest misconception about people affected by mental illness is that they’re dangerous. He said that people with a history of mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that people going through mental health crises are often driven more by fear than aggression.” Additionally, as the New York Times Editorial Board has written, studies show that 95% of people who commit gun violence—be it mass shootings, homicides, or suicides—are not mentally ill, though the media perpetrates a myth that they are. The Shoestring emailed Chief Kasper on Saturday to clarify this, she made the following statement via email:

“We want to be sure that when we encounter people who are in crisis and they’re feeling like they want to hurt themselves or someone else, that we are able to best communicate with the person in need and then connect them with the appropriate services. I hope to avoid being in the position of someone hurting themselves or others and wondering if we could have done more.”

The Shoestring also reached out to The Gazette to ask if an editor OK’ed the quote and if the claim was fact-checked. We have yet to hear back from The Gazette after multiple attempts to contact them.

I am worried that The Gazette, in this instance, is uncritically promulgating an implication by Chief Kasper that people who commit gun violence are mentally ill. It is also concerning that Mayor Narkewicz is promoting this story, despite his noted preference for research-based claims over opinion. Mayor Narkewicz did not respond to our request for comment on why he Tweeted an article with a poorly sourced claim by Chief Kasper.

In the memo, Chief Kasper, also invoked officer safety, which is a very legitimate concern. She suggested that shields are necessary in order to protect officers when giving search warrants to armed individuals. “I cannot imagine asking any member of my staff to engage in this type of high-risk activity without providing them the ballistic protection provided by the shield,” she wrote. [Update 3/6: In a follow up email, we asked Chief Kasper why instead of putting officers in harm’s way to go on dangerous missions to serve warrants, why not just serve them in public areas when suspects are unarmed? She responded: “Regarding arresting narcotics dealers and traffickers in more public areas, we do sometimes try to do that. It is not always practical or possible. Every situation is different.”]

What Kasper doesn’t say is that the NPD officers in the situation referenced in the memo went in with Northwestern District Attorney’s Office Anti-Crime Task Force and Massachusetts State Police Special Tactical Operations (STOP) Team. Yet, it is debated whether or not it is a good idea for S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) teams to serve search warrants. SWAT teams originated in the 1960s for riot control and very specialized de-escalation of violent acts while they’re happening—like hostage situations, terrorism, or live shooters. As an ACLU report notes, they’re main use now is fighting the so-called drug war and serving warrants.

In a Washington Post column about the aforementioned ACLU report, police historian Radley Balko writes:

“Where violent, volatile SWAT tactics were once used only in limited situations where someone was in the process of or about to commit a violent crime—where the police were using violence only to defuse an already violent situation—SWAT teams today are overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected of committing nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before.”

In his 2014 book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop, Balko chronicles the shift of SWAT teams being used very sparingly to de-escalate violent situations to them being used routinely in the drug war to serve papers—Kasper’s justification for some of this equipment. I emailed Kasper to ask why they need this equipment when they are being assisted from outside agencies for this type of dangerous police work—why not just borrow shields from the State Police? [Update 3/6: Essentially conceding that shields are unnecessary for the example she used in the memo, Chief Kasper wrote the following in an email: “There are some situations where a ballistic shield is important to best protect our staff, but when we don’t request the services of the STOP team.” Adding that “it would not always be practical to borrow their equipment.”]

This winter there aren’t enough shelter beds in sub-freezing temperatures though the police already have a surplus of as much as $68,000 to buy tactical weapons and training.

“About eight hours before the police raid,” Gazette reporter Caitlin Ashworth wrote, “Police Chief Jody Kasper was just a block or two from the Main Street apartment at a candlelight vigil in remembrance of those who have died from opioid overdoses.” Thus further highlighting that the drug war hasn’t worked; and despite a forty-year law and order campaign to “stop it,” drug-use is at an all time high.

I can see where Chief Kasper, who is the author of another book called How Cops Die, is coming from. Terrorism, school shootings, drugs, anthrax, and risks posed to officers on the job are all very scary. But all of the threats in Kasper’s memo—which are a product of her worldview—are grossly overblown. According to a Bloomberg analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor, you are more likely to die from gun homicide if you’re a taxi driver than if you’re a cop. And you won’t be surprised to learn that being houseless is significantly more dangerous than being a police officer. In New York City alone, where numbers are shaky at best, 212 houseless people died in 2015. The same year, where strong does data exist, only 124 police officers died in the United States.

This winter there aren’t enough shelter beds in sub-freezing temperatures though the police already have a surplus of as much as $68,000 to buy tactical weapons and training.

Beck writes that “during this century so far, America has responded to terrorist attacks by deepening its fears and by entrenching itself in militarism and surveillance.” We are ensnared within the longest foreign war in United States history and gun violence is a fact of life. So are poverty, militarism, environmental degradation, patriarchy, and racism. Maybe if we treated those things as threats instead of anthrax attacks and Hot Chocolate Run terrorism, our community would be safer. I don’t know, just an idea.


Will Meyer is an editor of The Shoestring.

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