I Go To City Council Meetings #18

The Council debates a gift of ammunition from Walmart, upsetting the Mayor

by Jules Marsh

Public Comment

Five people asked the council to reject a donation from Walmart that consisted of an estimated  $13,000 worth of ammunition.

Dana Goldblatt shared that she understood why the council might find it rational to accept the gift, “Once you are buying bullets, you might as well get them for free because that is cost effective.” But expressed her opposition to the militarization of the NPD, “That rationalization accepts as a given the current degree of militarization of the Northampton Police. And the number and extent of violence workers that we need in Northampton as opposed to other workers like social workers, and crisis workers.” She went on to make the council aware that citizens have no voice in the tactics and operations of the police department which is tasked with protecting them, “This isn’t an area in which the Mayor’s office accepts comment or there is no citizen review committee of the Northampton police. There is no citizen input.”

Amy Bookbinder told the council, “I find the city even considering this as bad, well almost as bad as allowing the NPD to go to Arizona for training under Joe Arpaio.” She thanked Mayor Narkewicz and Chief Kasper for cancelling Kasper’s recent trip to Israel and asked that they say no to the Walmart donation as well. “The city should not accept ammunition, tax break or not, from a dirty corporation.”

Another speaker shared that they “take no part in shaming anyone who shops at Walmart,” and went on to distinguish the donation from a regular transaction, “This ‘gift’ is a transaction between to incredibly powerful institutions. This makes it a transaction that helps to upkeep the oppressive and deadly labor practices of Walmart and the oppressive and deadly tactics of law enforcement.” They went on to ask the council to consider the fact that the guns that officers carry may in fact create unsafe working conditions for officers, “It is widely known that owning a firearm increases the chances of someone getting hurt, including the person who owns it. So why are cops walking around with them? Don’t you think the NPD should stop endangering their own workers lives? Lets have these conversations.”

Will Meyer reminded the council that it had already approved the purchase of ammunition through the power of the purse this year. “A discussion needs to be had if there is even a need for this type of gift.”

Andrew Smith shared that though he was in favor of what he referred to as a purchase of “body armor” earlier this year because he believed that police officers deserve to have safe working conditions he did not want the council to approve the gift of ammunition. He cited previous actions by the council that he did not think were in line with accepting the donation, “When it comes to statements of values in what we actually believe in as a city, frequently the  council has passed resolutions for stricter, stronger, more comprehensive gun safety regulations, past resolutions for greater protections of workers rights, and had made statements about the importance of downtown Northampton.”

Greg Goff called for citizen oversight of the NPD saying, “The fact that we don’t have a citizen led police commission to hold our police department accountable in what trainings they are doing, which weapons they are doing them with, and which countries the trainings are being performed, and spending how much money doing them, is an unacceptable omission in a town that talks about being progressive.”

A Gift from Walmart

During the Finance Committee meeting which takes place at the start of every city council meeting, the council discussed an Order to Accept Gift of Ammunition from Walmart which would allow the Northampton Police Department to accept the donation of an estimated  $13,000 worth of ammunition from the largest retailer in the country. In a request to the Mayor to accept the gift, Police Chief Jody Kasper said, “The majority of this ammunition would be used as training rounds. The donation would reduce our overall ammunition expenses, which are always costly.” The NPD normally obtains ammunition through purchases that are approved by the council and Mayor in the city’s yearly budget, or capital improvement plan.

In introducing the order, the Mayor shared that the Walmart store located in Northampton was no longer selling bullets and therefore wanted to donate their remaining inventory. It was not clear from the Mayor’s statement if the donation consisted of the entirety of the store’s remaining inventory, nor was it clear why the store did not decide to send its bullets to its Hadley location, which does sell ammunition. He clarified that according to Mass General Law, gifts of personal property to the NPD that are over $5,000 must be approved by the city council and that is why the council was tasked with approving the gift. He went on to inform the council that a portion of the ammunition would be unusable by the NPD and would therefore be handed over to the State police to be destroyed. He did not go into detail about who makes sure that the State Police destroy the bullets. He reminding the council that it had just recently, in 2015,  approved the funds to build a shooting range the basement of the NPD station. He then argued that the officers need the bullets to train for real-life situations, so that they actually won’t need bullets when they are not training and in real-life situations, “We work very hard for officers to not have to use their weapon. Part of their arms training involves when and when not to use their weapons.”

In response to a question about how much the NPD spends yearly on ammunition, Narkewicz answered that the NPD ordered $8,000 to 9,000 worth of ammunition in the 2018 fiscal year.

Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7) recounted a request for historical information on the NPD’s purchases that she sent the Mayor prior to the council meeting, which included, “an accounting of the purchases of ammunition made in the last five years of the NPD as well as inventory of current ammunition that we have in stock in the police department?” She then read Narkewicz response to her email in which he denied her access to the information and stated that he would approve the request only if the full city council approved it. In his email response, he went on to say that the request would take a significant amount of labor by city staff and shared, “Frankly, I believe the request coveys a lack of trust and support of our police department feeding into a broader anti-police narrative that has seriously impacted the morale of the NPD and its ability to recruit members and retain officers.”

Klein then shared research she had done independently of the Mayor’s office in which she discovered that a substantial portion of the donation consisted of shotgun slugs that would go unused by the NPD causing her to ask, “Why would we be a passthrough to the State Police to destroy things that Walmart as a corporation should be using their own funding?”

Narkewicz responded that Klein’s research into the donation affirmed his characterization of the request as being untrustful of the NPD. The Mayor noted that the City accepts gifts routinely all the time. He went on to liken the gift of bullets to the gift of a van to the school department. He asked, “what standard are we holding the police department to in comparison to other departments and other gifts we have accepted?” He went on to say, “Given the context, I do cite the morale of the police department, and it is a real thing, and we are losing officers to other departments.”

Klein responded, “It is absolutely appropriate to inquire about certain kinds of gifts. In this case, yes it is the police department and its because it is bullets.” She shared that her core question about the donation was, “Is it really going to strengthen our police force’s ability to keep our community safe?”

Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) shared that he did not want to facilitate a tax write-off for Walmart and that he too was concerned about the city being in charge of destroying the bullets rather than Walmart.  

Councilor Bidwell (Ward 2) stressed the need for police training in firearms, and shared that he believed that the fact that NPD practice shooting firearms is why they virtually don’t use their firearms on the job. Along with Klein and Dwight, Bidwell was concerned about the city’s role in the destruction of the bullets, “I agree, I don’t want this to be the vehicle for a $13,000 donation when we are only going to use $6,000 of that donation.” He asked that the NPD only be given what it would use.

Councilor Nash (Ward 3) asked the Mayor if the donation would offset the NPDs budget in the upcoming year and noted that if this gift were being given at a time when the budget was actively being created, it might very well affect the amount of money the NPD was allocated.

Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra (Ward 4) thanked Councilor Klein for her research on the bullet inventory. She shared a vague approval of the donation saying that she “would rather have bullets destroyed or used in the safety of our firing range rather than sold over the counter in our community.”

Though Dwight cited that the NPD has not had an exchange of fire since 1978 and others praised the NPD for not using their weapons, none of the councilors accounted for the effect that open carrying a firearm has on fellow human beings especially those who are distressed.

In response to the council’s discussion, the Mayor insisted that such a discussion about a gift to the city was unprecedented and told the council that Walmart has given gifts and grants to the city before. He also recounted, without sharing that the event was one in which the NPD created profits for Walmart, that the NPD had recently set up shop in Walmart’s parking lot to collect food for a food drive.

Councilor Klein suggested that the order for the donation be sent to the City Services committee so that it might vote to support her request for historic information on the NPD’s ammunition purchases. Councilor Maureen Carney (Ward 1), the president of City Services, supported the motion and noted that Chief Kasper would already be meeting with the committee at their next meeting as part of a weekly check in and that it could be a good place to ask any further questions regarding the donation. Council President Ryan O’Donnell (At-Large) also thought that the referral was a reasonable action to take citing that he, “heard almost every single one of the city councilors ask a question this evening regarding this donation,” and added, “I’d be more comfortable if we could discuss it further before acting.”

In response, the Mayor returned to the podium to repeat, “This is unprecedented. I’ll keep saying it, this is not standard practice to refer gifts to committee.”

Though Councilor Bidwell too had questions about the order and as noted by Councilor Sciarra his concerns would require that the order for the donation be revised, he felt that sending it to committee was “unnecessary” and said that the council should be “cognizant as the legislative body of the city of the impact on morale of our police departments.”

Councilor Dwight defended both the NPD and the need for higher scrutiny of this gift as opposed to others, “We aren’t talking about books, school busses, we are talking about lethal systems. Only one employee that has right to carry gun and to shoot and kill citizens. Police should understand and realize they come under extra scrutiny. Our police department is an excellent police department. That said, scrutiny goes with the territory.”

While O’Donnell stressed that “discussing something is not a punitive measure,” Councilor Nash felt that research on the donation would lead to “not having the right conversation,” and said, “I don’t think sending it to committee fares well for our police department.”

Narkewicz reminded the council that it could in fact disarm the police during the budget process. He went on to scold the council saying, “Frankly, I am regretting that I even agreed to accept the gift and should probably withdraw it and ask Walmart to give it to another police department.”

During Klein’s response to the Mayor’s comment, the Mayor yelled across the room prompting Councilor O’Donnell to say, “Okay, we can’t yell at each other.”

Councilor Dwight noted that the public comment from community members seemed to be what was making the councilors feel so uncomfortable and advised, “We shouldn’t base decisions on what is said in public comment.”

In closing, Councilor Klein shared that her questions were, “not just antagonistic questions. They are very concrete questions. Do we need to accept 70,000 bullets in our community?”

In a 6-3 vote, the council voted to send the donation order to the City Services committee so that it could be reviewed further.

Update: According to Chief Kasper, Walmart withdrew their donation offer due to the unexpected public backlash in response to the gift.

It should be noted that a total of five people spoke out against the donation.

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

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! Please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.