I Go To City Council Meetings #4

Is a Ladder a Gun?

JULES MARSH

On March 1, the Northampton City Council held its fourth meeting of the year. Councilor Maureen Carney (Ward 1) was not present. Over 100 people attended. According to Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7), “the number of people we had here tonight is the largest number I’ve seen in the chambers since I’ve been on the Council.” Reporters from the Gazette, MassLive, and the UMASS Daily Collegian were present.

Three people spoke during public comment. The majority of community members chose to speak later in the meeting in direct reference to a financial order that the Finance Committee would discuss. During public comment, one person recounted a pie outing with late Congressmen Peter Kocot where he listened to her concerns about the foster system. Two people spoke about the Council’s upcoming policy decisions in retail marijuana. The vice-chair of the city’s housing partnership presented a plan to the council that he hoped would improve housing affordability in the area.

Mayor’s Presentation

After public comment, Mayor Narkewicz took to the podium and gave a 19 minute long summary of the 2019 portion of the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to the City Council. The CIP is a list of capital improvements that the city will undertake over the next five years. It includes the cost estimates, including maintenance, time schedules, and financing methods for each project.

After the Mayor’s initial presentation, while he was still at the podium, members of the public took it upon themselves to invite those who were standing in the hallway into the chambers. People helped one another find spots to sit and moved chairs and the podium to fit more bodies in the room. Even then, the room could not hold everyone. It was cozy and warm, as if a fireplace were nearby.

Mayor Narkewicz then continued and read a statement by Police Chief Kasper that he requested her to write. [Here is a link to the memo released by Police Chief Kasper on February 28, 2018.] It should be noted that despite the Mayor choosing to be spokesperson for the NPD in this moment, the Mayor and Police Chief are technically separate entities of power in the city. Referring to Police Chief Kasper’s request for $75,000 to purchase police equipment that includes riot gear, Narkewicz stated, “I feel compelled because there is so much question about this particular item, I did ask Chief Kasper to prepare a memo giving further detail on the actual request just because I know there has been a lot of discussion about this particular request.” He continued, “So I am just going to quickly read the memo.” Sixteen minutes later, he had finished reading the six page memo in its entirety.

Public Comment

The public comment for Legislative Committee began and for an hour and a half, community members used their three minutes to persuade the Council to deny Police Chief Kasper’s request. This request is a part of Order 18.044 which is part of the CIP. Below is the exact list of equipment as requested by Kasper in that order (see pg 238 in the CIP):

Fund the acquisition of tactical related equipment, supplies/services, including, but not limited to:

– Protective helmets with face shield visors

-Bio/Chemical gas masks with bio & chemical filters

-Mutual Aid/Large Incident Training and Equipment

-Crowd control, plexiglass shields and training

-Tactical training including scenarios that involve active shooter situations

-Disposable, basic bio/chem protective suits/high visibility vests for use over protective suits -Tactical weaponry, special equipment and munitions

-Less lethal options equipment and disbursement agents

-“Go Bags” for active shooter incidents

-Ammunition for all weapons for training purposes

As reported by the Shoestring, what are euphemistically known as ‘less lethal weapons’ can indeed be lethal and include pepper spray, tasers (which, to their credit, the NPD has never purchased), and projectile weapons, like rubber bullets and beanbag launchers. Many members of the audience shared their own experiences with police violence and discrimination, particularly citing instances of riot gear being used against protestors.

Jason Kotoch shared, “In 2003 I was shot in the face by one of these so called non -lethal weapons that police Chief Kasper wants to purchase. I was in Miami feeding retired steelworkers at a permitted protest when a stray bullet struck me just an inch above my eye socket.” He continued, “I feel it is only sane to demand public funds be used to benefit the community, not put us in danger. I don’t think the Northampton Police are responsible for shooting me, but I do think that the U.S. has a history of crushing dissent with the very equipment that the police chief is asking her to allow you to purchase.”

Recounting her experience of being fenced in by police officers at a protest in New York City, Jennifer Fronc said, “These are neutral objects like helmets or shields until a frightened and angry police officer picks up that fence and jams it against your body.”

Community members also shared that these weapons, like all police weapons, are most likely to be used against people of color.

Jose Bou, who has lived in Northampton for 31 years,said, “If you are not white there is always a concern, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here.” He continued, “As a Puerto Rican person, and I would never deny that, everytime a police officer stops you there is always a concern. You are black, you are non-white; police officers all over this region, they don’t like you; They don’t look at you as a human being.”

Couple Leslie Lucio and Ally Diamond shared, “During this time of division, continued public protest and ongoing and unchecked police brutality, police departments need to think about engaging in their communities, not investing in riot helmets and non-lethal weapons. The reality is that increased police weaponry and use of any kind of force disproportionately affects people of color.”

Ghazah Abbasi, from Pakistan, noted both the role that the military industrial complex and racism play in the militarization of police. “This isn’t just a small decision. Any investment that the City Council chooses to make now is an investment in the prison industrial complex, and the military industrial complex, in weapons manufacturing. All of these industries, run like ordinary businesses.” She continued, questioning the ability of Americans to see people of color as people. Citing the tens of thousands of Pakistanis killed since the 2001 U.S. so-called ‘war on terrorism,’ she said, “I’m from Pakistan myself and thousands of people were killed in Pakistan. Their stories are never told, their names were never released. I’ve wondered as a Pakistani living in the U.S., can we be seen as people, or will people from the Global South really be seen as people?”

Others used their comments to demonstrate that despite the claims in her memo, the type of gear Chief Kasper is requesting does not keep children safe.

Recalling her senior year in high school when she and her classmates prepared to go to a protest against the Iraq War in New York City, Emma Rose shared, “We spent lunch hour making DIY pepper spray masks to hand out to middle schoolers so they could go to the protest with us. When there is this conversation about keeping children safe, I want you to have that image in your head of high schoolers making DIY pepper spray masks to keep people safe from the police.”

Story Young, whose community was marred by the Columbine shooting said, “Increase of tactical police gear has not reduced the frequency of these situations. On the contrary they continue to increase.” (Despite Chief Kasper’s using school shootings to justify this equipment in her memo, militarized police, armed school guards, and the like have historically—both at Columbine, where Young grew up, and in Parkland, Florida—not stopped school shootings. Some of this funding will go to ‘active shooter trainings’.)

Two local attorneys, both former public defenders, criticized the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) teams to deliver warrants.

After sharing her experience of being thrown on the ground by riot police in Philadelphia, attorney Rachel Weber said “Chief Kasper says that this weaponry won’t be used for parades or demonstrations but more for search warrants. I have a difficult time believing that. If you have a tool why wouldn’t you use it if you think you need it. Using this weapon to serve search warrants is a terrible use of this equipment.”

Dana Goldblatt said, “All of the research shows that by training police repeatedly to deal with these very, very rare events like terrorist attacks, anthrax attacks, active shooter situations, you convince the officers in their bodies, because they learn this repeatedly over and over again through physical training, that they are in a war and that the people they are patrolling are the enemy. And it is very hard to undo that simply be sitting them down in a training.”

Some members expressed their discontent with current police practices and shared their visions of the future.

Laura Greenfield said, “In my mind when I think about what that kind of community looks like in practice, the role of a police dept is very minimal, if not entirely absent.” She continued, “When the police are militarized, their job description changes. The job of the military is to engage in war. The purpose of war is to kill people. And in order to kill someone, one must have an enemy. And so I ask, if the police wants to play the role of the military, who is their enemy? It is the Northampton community? Who is seen as the target?” She continued, “Historically it is the most marginalized among us who are perceived as the threat.”

Jon Liebman said, “I think Jody Kasper’s memo is quite articulate in that she is presenting a budget to maintain the status quo, the issue is that many people in this room and in this community don’t like the status quo, and that the relationship between the police and community is very difficult and that we are looking for a change.”

Some community members shared that they just don’t think this kind of gear is needed in Northampton, MA.

Reed Arahood quipped, “It is my understanding that Northampton has not had a riot since Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 to 1787.”

Restaurant manager Kayden Moore shared, “In the times that I’ve felt a conflict I was having with a customer was beyond my capabilities and at all made me question the safety of staff members and patrons, I have greatly appreciated the police department’s ability to de-escalate the situation quickly and efficiently. However, I don’t think the police need riot gear to do this and the rest of their job effectively. In my anecdotal experience, the police here are primarily interacting with folks who have unmet mental health needs or substance abuse problems, not multi-hazard threats.”

Liz Jenson said, “I’m not here to criticize the police of today, but I also know about what police are being trained with today. I know what today’s police force is trained as. It’s an us against them. It’s not their fault that’s just what it is. I’ve also been in this town so long that I know we don’t need these kind of things.”

Local nurse, Gabe, said, “It is stated by the chief that in the past two decades there has never been a need for these shields on standby at large events. I think that’s awesome and perhaps this funding can go to our schools or low-income folks who very much need the money instead.”

Only one person spoke in support of Chief Kasper’s request. Susan McGuire said,“My wife and I are here tonight to lend our support to the Northampton Police. We have seen it, we have experienced it.” She continued, “This is just replacing equipment that unfortunately in today’s world regardless of town or city, this equipment is needed.”

Council Meeting

After the Legislative Committee portion of public comment, the Council proceeded to discuss Order 18.044, which in addition to the $75,000 request by Police Chief Jody Kasper, included others such as a request to install new surveillance cameras into Northampton public schools, a request to repair a fire truck ladder, and a request for  construction on the stairs at the Academy of Music. During this process, the Council members asked the Mayor many questions about how the budget operates. Narkewicz, the architect of the city budget, which includes the CIP, took the time to calmly explain it to them.

New Surveillance Cameras in Schools

In regards to the installation of new surveillance cameras in Northampton public schools, Councilor Klein asked if people would be notified of the new cameras by a sign. When the Mayor responded that he did not know, he and Councilor Klein engaged in a brief disagreement as to whether signs must be used in the interior of public buildings. The Shoestring is looking into this and will provide an update soon.

Local Marijuana Tax

The Mayor and Councilors discussed the 3% local tax on retail marijuana sales. In response to Councilor Sciara’s (Ward 4) question as to why the local tax was so low, Councilor Dwight (At-Large) replied that it was because the State wants a 10% tax and that to increase the combined taxes of 13% any higher created fear that the already existing black market weed enterprise would persist. (Which, as Baffler columnist June Thunderstorm pointed out, might not be such a bad thing.)

Smith College and Google Chromebooks

The Mayor described a $100,000 contribution by Smith College for Google Chromebooks for local schools through a fund called PILOT which is funded by “revenue derived from payment in lieu of taxes.” In 2015, Smith College took measures to protect its tax-exempt status by declining to participate in PILOT which asks the non-profit institution to pay a portion of what they would owe if they paid property taxes.  Though the Google Chromebooks are funded by PILOT, the Smith College donation of $100,000 is technically independent of the program. Earlier this year, the New York Times wrote an article about the rise of Google technology in classrooms. This may be of interest to community members.

Potholes

Councilors had a lively discussion about potholes, many requesting service for the streets in their particular ward. North Farms Rd, Glendale Rd, and King St are streets that entered the discussion. Citing the confusing international standards designated to rate which roads are in most need of repair, Councilor Bidwell (Ward 2) asked for a “plain english explanation of how this prioritizing and analysis works.” Councilor Dwight commented on the ethics of asking local taxpayers to fund these infrastructure repair projects questioning, “The state’s abdication of their responsibility to maintain the infrastructure by not doing an equitable tax based on a person’s ability to pay instead of a tax on how someone values someone else’s property.”  The Mayor responded saying that this could be remedied by the Fair Share Tax or the “Millionaire’s Tax” which is a 4% surcharge on incomes over $1,000,000. Those funds could go toward Chapter 90 which funds transportation, preservation, and improvement projects in Massachusetts.

$75,000 NPD Request

Four hours into the meeting, the Council addressed the issue that 99% of public comment revolved around and arguably what most people in the room came to see.  The majority of those in attendance left before this issue was addressed by the Council.

After a successful motion by Councilor Klein to separate Chief Kasper’s $75,000 request from the rest of Order 18.044, the Council engaged in debate over the merits and ethics of the request. Councilor Klein shared her experiences as an 18 yr old with a semi-automatic weapon in the Israeli army saying, “It affects your mentality about concepts of power, it affects your mentality around what you can do with the weapon in your hands and who you can do it to. It is a deep psychological shift that happens to people in position of power and control when their holding weapons while wearing uniforms.” She went on to request that a community or civilian oversight be created to oversee purchases by the police.

Councilor Klein also pointed out that the NPD already has a surplus budget allocated to ‘tactical training and equipment’ worth as much as $68,000. Further, this request has been both accepted and denied in the past.

Despite the fact that during public comment attendees repeatedly asked that the $75,000 not be approved, Councilor Dwight felt that the public conversation revolved more around a theoretical matter than a concrete ask. He stated, “The systems that we are talking about are more of a principle issue and less of an actual practical issue, a practical capital issue. I am profoundly conflicted on this point.” Referring to hierarchical militarized structure, he acknowledged that the police department is a marshall system along with the fire department and even the public works department and candidly shared, “That’s never made me particularly comfortable.” He also acknowledged that many of those who apply to be police officers come from a military background, saying, “they feel this is a logical transition into civilian world from what they have learned in the military.”

However, Councilor Dwight took issue with what he felt was the public’s projection of police brutality by other departments onto the NPD. He stated, “I have a deep and abiding discomfort with the characterization of the police department, the way we conduct this polity in the community and the way we function as a community.”

He went on to justify the purchase of militarized equipment by comparing such gear to the fire truck ladder, a piece of equipment requested in the same financial order. “That ladder truck we have, we don’t use it. I don’t remember the last time it was used. We spent a fortune on that thing.”

Councilor Nash thanked those who commented for sharing their stories and insights. While he declared his trust and respect for the NPD, he acknowledged that there is a lack of trust between many people in the community and the police department saying, “I don’t have the distrust that many people in our community have. We have some real work to do there.” He went on to say, “That around this particular purchase this equipment has not been used, by and large it hasn’t been used in any demonstrations. We’ve never seen it.” This is inaccurate. Last year, protester Eric Matlock was sprayed in the face with a chemical weapon by an NPD officer.

After Councilor Nash’s comment, Dana Goldblatt addressed Councilor Dwight, contesting his assessment that our police department was different than other departments. She clarified that the officer who dragged Matlock from where he sat was not aware that grabbing and dragging a human body was a use of force. She went on to say, “We are not special, we are not a special and unique police force. And I just wanted it clear that what I’m saying and what I’m bringing to it doesn’t come from elsewhere.”

Councilor Bidwell supported the request, saying that while he was moved by public comment, he does not agree that the NPD is militarized. “I do not see a militarized police force.” He continued by expressing his trust in our government and police department saying, “I believe by preponderance of the evidence that this a is a police department and an administration worthy of our trust until proven otherwise.”

Councilor LaBarge, echoing Councilor Dwight and Councilor Nash, based her decision to support the funding on the fact that it is not actually used. She stated, “I’m going to support this $75,000 because they have not used it.”

Councilor Klein attempted to request the order be sent back to committee because she would like to have more details from Chief Kasper about the specific purchases and uses of the equipment in the request. She said, “We don’t have a detailed inventory of what the police force is requesting, those are all things that we could have a little more time to request from Chief Kasper. To understand more about what that surplus is truly going to.” Councilor Dwight supported Councilor Klein in her request for more information saying, “I think it’s appropriate to find out more granularly item by item what the funding would be used for.” Though the Mayor said he could have provided Councilor Klein with this information if she had asked for it earlier, it should be noted that the public has been denied access to the complete inventory of the NPD by Chief Kasper.

Under the advisement of Council President O’Donnell, the order was not referred and instead will stay in Council and receive its second reading next Council meeting. (Everything in City Council gets voted on twice). The thinking behind this echoed Council Dwight’s early sentiment that the public’s repeated request to deny funding of $75,000 to the NPD was not in fact related to the Council’s decision to fund $75,000 to the NPD.

I walked away from this meeting with a few questions

  1. If a gun is a ladder, is a ladder a gun?
  2. If a ladder is a gun, is a person who police view as a threat an inanimate building that catches fire once in a blue moon?
  3. If a person who police view as a threat is a building that catches fire once in a blue moon, is shooting a gun at a person who police view as a threat the same as shooting water on a burning building?
  4. I don’t think so.

Jules Marsh is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA. 

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