Transparency and platitudes don’t change power relations
There is a growing distrust of our Northampton Police Department. After requests for power, control and self-protection were made in the form of surveillance cameras, weapons, helmets, shields, and trainings meant to be used during riots, the residents of Northampton are taking a deeper look at what our police do and how they do it. A groundswell of support has developed for keeping Northampton residents involved in how our police conduct their business. The public has been alerted to the fact that setting reasonable and effective limits on how our police act in our community, is both our right and our responsibility. Our Chief of Police, Jody Kasper correctly characterizes the requests for capital improvement funds as “business as usual”. As more people in our small town understand just exactly what “business as usual” means, they are rightfully concerned and simultaneously want change and more transparency.
The role of policing in America is under a similar scrutiny. Due to multiple murders of unarmed citizens by police, and disparate prosecutions by DAs which correlate to both race and class, there has been a call to reform, and in some cases abolish, police forces in both large and small cities throughout the United States. Indeed, one such city, Camden, NJ, took the radical step of disbanding its police department and rebuilding it after reimagining the role of police in its community. It was a success. Camden had the highest crime rate in the United States in 2012, with 2,566 violent crimes for every 100,000 people, 6.6 times higher than the national average of 387 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens. There were 23 murders in Camden in 2017, the lowest in the city in three decades, part of a sharp drop in violent crime since 2012. After the transformation of the police force in 2013, crime has continued to decline. It has only taken 4 years to see reductions in crime with a smaller and less armed force than were ever seen in over 30 years of a large, militarized police force. The Camden Police’s former motto was “get home safe.” They now say, “make sure everyone gets home safe.” This policing shift from a protectionist to a community engagement model has decreased all crime, both violent and non-violent, and at the same time has increased the community’s trust in its police force. They hired guardians not warriors. Less force made a better force. (It is also worth noting here, that crime rates are at an all time low, nationally.)
This past week (2-14-2018), after six officers were found guilty of corruption in Baltimore, MD, a representative for that city suggested taking Camden’s model and using it to disband the corrupt Baltimore Police department in hopes of a similar success. In New York City, their mayor has been working with the Center for Policing Equity (the same center that helped guide Camden’s success) to rewrite the New York City Police’s policies to stop proactive policing like stop and frisk after it was shown to disproportionately target Black and Latino citizens while returning lower rates of charges and convictions. Police departments in cities as small as Camden to as large as New York are all realizing that to keep the public trust, they must trust the public.
What does this have to do with our small town of approximately 29,000 people? Many residents describe Northampton as having one of the most competent and progressive police departments in the country. In what way do the issues that these other cities face compare to Northampton? Why should we be looking to change the behavior of a department who many don’t see as militarized, even when they are directly asking for military grade weapons and gear? Seven members of City Council—Klein voted no, and Carney was absent—voted for tactical weapons and gear. What argument is there to persuade a council member who said, “I have gotten to know Chief Kasper personally, and I believe she is a good person.”?
I say it’s not about liking or respecting our chief. You can like and respect her while at the same time see that actions by her and our department do harm to the people they are sworn to protect. The anecdotal evidence given by members of The Council who all hold “the power of the purse” over our department is a skewed assessment made by people who are treated well by the police because of their positions within this community. Each one of these City Councilors has a position in the community that our department treats better than those who have not held public office. Councilor-at-large Bill Dwight is involved in the hiring process of NPD officers, which means he directly consults for the NPD. Our councilors’ positive personal interactions with our police do not negate the serious missteps this department has made.
So, what are those missteps? What harm have they caused? Here’s a partial list from 2013 to 2018:
- Two officers lied on the stand about an altercation between themselves and a protester who they felt needed to be pepper sprayed in the face. There is photographic evidence that directly contradicts the Officers’ version of the story, which is now public record. There is also video evidence of the improper use of pepper spray.
- One officer in this incident stated that he was unaware that using his hands to physically move a protester against the protester’s will constituted a use of force. Seven officers that were there in court that day told this officer that they supported him, even after lying and demonstrating his ignorance about the use of force.
- The Police chief called a separate officer “impeccable” even after he used excessive force against a private citizen. This officer cost the city $52,500 as a direct consequence of his incorrect use of force. There is video evidence of the officer’s actions too. The officer used pepper spray during this incident in 2013.
- This same officer was suspended for “in-house policy violations,” yet could keep his gun, use of a cruiser, and remained the second highest paid city employee in FY2017. Our chief refused to be transparent about the infractions even after her much touted push for greater department transparency.
- Our chief has stated publicly that all her officers took implicit bias trainings. These trainings usually require a test at the end to determine what biases the officers have. The results are then discussed, and action plans are put in place to reduce the effects of these biases while carrying out their duties. Our Chief has touted this training as a positive, but has yet to release the results of this test. Taking this training does no good without taking the test, and the test does no good unless the biases are known and directly addressed.
- There have been multiple complaints from those who are homeless that an officer on duty at the station will not give out officer complaint forms. One homeless man stated he would have to call his public defender if he wasn’t given a complaint form. These forms should be kept out front in the publicly accessible part of the station. They should not have to be requested from an officer.
- A police captain and assistant were found to have engaged in improprieties with our department payroll records. They lost their jobs, but no charges were filed. The DA’s office refused to file charges in what was a chargeable offense, effectively protecting police department employees from having a criminal record.
- Chief Kasper has touted her transparency initiative as following “best community policing practices,” which it is. She has said publicly that she is proud to follow recommendations of the Taskforce on 21st Century Policing started by the Obama Administration. She only follows two recommendations put forth in this initiative. None of the recommendations involving community oversight for police policy or citizen input on hiring have been followed to date.
- Our Chief stated publicly that she has used this riot gear to assist Amherst Police and UMass police officers in helping keep order at the annual Blarney Blowout in 2017. In 2014, this event was the subject of a $160,000 report that concluded in part that, “The police response, including the donning of riot helmets and the use of chemical munitions, had the effect of creating confusion and perpetuating the unruly behavior of the crowds.” – Amherst Final Report 9-17-14. This supports the assertion that our police do not need any riot gear for crowd control. It does more harm than good.
- All the incidents since 2012 that have been reported as excessive or inappropriate use of force by our police department are against people of color. The two lawsuits in the past four years both involved black men. Because of the inability for the public to see the results of the officer implicit bias tests (if indeed they took it), and the absence of a citizen oversight committee which is recommended in the program Chief Kasper stated she was proud to follow, we have no insight into how the department treats people of color and those who are non-home-owning, non-business-owning people. We only know what their actions have shown: that the department does not have transparency when it comes to actions which harm its community members. It only has transparency about actions which protect the community.
So what are we as a caring community to do? We have four choices:
- Deny this monetary request and totally abolish the police.
- Deny this monetary request and disband the entire department. Then reimagine it as other cities have done with great success.
- Deny this monetary request and begin to implement the rest of the recommendations of the Taskforce that Kasper has already stated she supports.
- Approve this monetary request, continue to fund business as usual, and ignore the harm that our department has done and may continue to do to members of our community.
All over America, towns and cities are having discussions about how police should operate in their communities. If we choose to fund this request, we effectively opt out of that discussion. We can use this opportunity to create real and lasting dialogue which can serve to rebuild lost trust and form new trust where none had existed before.