Hundreds Attend Northampton Budget Hearing and Call for the Defunding of Police

 

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, June 3rd, the Northampton City Council and Mayor Narkewicz held a public hearing on the city budget via Zoom. All councilors were present, and at peak over 550 members of the public were on the call, many with Zoom backgrounds calling for the defunding of the police.

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-large) opened the meeting by acknowledging the extraordinary times as the nation erupts in protest. Some of these protests have been peaceful, she said, and others have “erupted in violence.” She asked the attendees to think of the names of those killed and take a moment to reflect before starting the meeting.

Sciarra opened the meeting with public comment and noted that those who wished for their comments to be recorded as part of the hearings on the budget specifically could wait to do so until the hearing was open for public testimony and all attendees except one adhered to this suggestion. Sciarra did not communicate clearly that the public comment on the budget would come almost four hours into the meeting, information which likely would have kept department heads waiting four hours as opposed to unsalaried constituents.  One person, Richard Hendrick, spoke during the initial public comment, saying he was surprised the police budget increase was even still on the agenda, and that he considered it an “affront” to what was going on in the country right now.

Departmental budget presentations

Five city department heads attended to give presentations on their budgets for FY2021, including NPS Superintendent John Provost, DPW Director Donna LaScaleia, Police Chief Jody Kasper, recently appointed Fire Chief John Davine, and Central Services Director David Pomerantz. 

NPS Superintendent John Provost was first to speak, and also opened by noting the “acute outbreak of violence against communities of color,” the pandemic, and the looming economic crisis. Provost asked for $32 million for NPS for FY2021, noting it was a larger increase than any other time in the schools’ history (roughly 5%), but given the scope of the crises, he “[did]n’t think we could ask for anything less.”

Provost detailed some findings from a recently conducted district review, an accountability process the school system undertakes every 6 or 7 years. One of the strengths identified was the good relationship NPS has with the mayor and city council, but one of the major weaknesses, Provost admitted, was that the school system does not serve all students equally, and that this disparity has only been exacerbated by the switch to remote learning. Students they had difficulty reaching in person were disengaging remotely, and these issues often fall along racial lines, especially for English language learners. Provost also noted that significant interruptions in school attendance can have lifelong, even intergenerational impacts. Given this reality, NPS is discussing blending the district improvement plan with the reopening plan over a three year period.

Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) opened up questions with a lengthy discussion of equitable access to gym shorts for student athletes. Other councilors followed with questions about remote learning and the transition back to in-person learning. Provost warned that things would not be “business as usual” in the fall, as social distancing mandates greatly impact building capacity. He cited models that recommend a 70-passenger school bus be limited to 12 students, and 250-student lunch plans be reduced to 40. Given this reality, NPS has considered a number of approaches, including rotating students so that not all students attend school on any given day, and paying for internet access for families who cannot afford it. Provost also clarified in response to a question from Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) that no NPS faculty or staff had been laid off, although some had been shuffled into different positions.

Police Chief Jody Kasper spoke third. Chief Kasper started by saying she “share[s] in the outrage of what we all witnessed last week.” She detailed statistics on how many calls the department responded to, how many arrests made, sex offenders registered, car seats installed. She informed the council of the state of staffing in the NPD, saying that out of the 65 full time officers, one position was vacant and several officers were still at the police academy. Kasper noted that recruiting had become difficult, citing “national disinterest” in becoming a police officer and low unemployment last year (the implication being that police recruiting targets the economically insecure).

Regarding the $194,000 increase to the police budget she requested, Kasper broke down that $140,000 would be used for scheduled salary increases (raises), $8,000 for training, and $45,000 for new hybrid police cruisers. The police budget makes up about 6.21% of the general fund budget, which Kasper attested “puts us just about right in the middle” compared with “other communities.”

Nearly every councilor asked questions, noting the huge influx of calls and emails they had received from the public. During questioning, Kasper said she did not know yet how she would rearrange the budget if the funding increase was not there. Some councilors, particularly Labarge and John Thorpe (Ward 4), seemed to misunderstand the concerns of their constituents, both asking to clarify that the increase in the budget was to maintain the current level of policing. Both councilors seemed to believe that the public believed the increase was due to Covid-19. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-large) spoke at length about how this was a “perfect storm,” given the “universal forced imprisonment” of citizens during quarantine and the pervasive anxiety due to massive job loss. Before anyone from the public had a chance to speak, Dwight lamented that Kasper would be receiving undeserved criticism from attendees which would simply be projecting events that happened outside of Northampton onto the NPD.  He thanked the police chief,  as did every councilor, for her “calmness, serenity, and sincerity.” (In another frame, someone held up a sign that read, “Your officers pepper sprayed a 15-year-old,” referencing the end of Monday’s protest).

Councilor Maiorie (Ward 7) said she “wondered if this is the time to do something different,” explicitly naming “alternatives to policing” as a possible solution.  Maiorie later recalled how upon putting her sign away after attending a recent rally, she knew she would probably have to take it out again. She followed this up by offering that she “actually think[s] Northampton is an extremely well positioned place to stand as a model to other municipalities, trying to make changes proactively before we have an incident… I know you made this budget in earnest, but I don’t think this budget is reflecting that opportunity.”

Kasper responded, “I think at the heart of all the issues we have with police/community relations are the missing link of us sitting at the table understanding each other… We’ve not found successful ways to do that, we’ve been met with some difficult resistance when we’ve tried to do that.” She went on to reference a community conversation on race that she had tried to set up, that looked like it was going to be protested, so the presenter backed out.

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) asked what criteria go into choosing and evaluating trainings, to which Kasper responded was, in so many words, essentially a decision she makes based on word of mouth from others as to whether the training was good or not. Councilor Foster offered to help improve police/community relations if there was anything she could do.

Councilor Jarrett (Ward 5) asked about declining crime rates. Kasper responded that the “crime rate has fluctuated for years” and is impacted by a variety of factors. She noted that a lot of crimes are impacted by joblessness, and that she is “certainly worried about where we are headed with the state of the world.” 

Councilor Labarge spoke up again to say she agreed with Councilor Maiorie, but didn’t seem to understand her very well, as she then said “we need to bring that [community/police] trust back, because for some reason our department is being targeted again.” Mayor Narkewicz closed out the section by expressing sympathy for police who end up being on the front lines working with overworked social services, not mentioning the fact that he controls the funding for many of these services.

Public testimony

In total, 71 individuals spoke during public testimony, and every single one spoke in favor of decreasing the police budget. Public testimony did not start until almost four hours into the meeting (by which time two hundred attendees had left the public hearing), and lasted for roughly three hours. Numerous people recounted, at times in detail, traumatic incidents involving the Northampton police. Nearly every one of these incidents involved a person of color, a person experiencing homelessness, or someone experiencing an episode of mental illness. Several social service workers spoke about how police routinely make their jobs more difficult. Some public testimony is below: 

One speaker shared that when their roommate attempted suicide, the police pounded on their door at 4am and would not say why they were there, threatening to break down the door. When the speaker opened the door, they tried to back away but two officers charged at them, ultimately dragging them naked down a flight of stairs. The person for whom the wellness call was placed was largely ignored by the police.

Ashley Ginsburg, who grew up in Northampton, pointed out that on Monday, NPD officers took a knee ostensibly in solidarity with protestors, then turned around and maced teenagers. She wanted to know why the city was not funding Tapestry and wet shelters if the city allegedly takes addiction so seriously. Ginsburg works at a wet shelter in Amherst.

Attorney Dana Goldblatt noted that Minneapolis had implemented every single reform Kasper had mentioned, and that every single study says that none of them work. She argued that the city does not need an armed paramilitary to install car seats and do birthday parades, and pointed out that it is cheaper to house the homeless than pay the police to “handle” them. Goldblatt told the council, “This can stop today, because you say it stops.”

Shelby Dean of Easthampton, who lived for several years in Northampton public housing, said the public housing desperately needs funding and she would never live there again. She expressed disappointment in Councilor Dwight and others for not representing the voices of the community who have been clearly expressing their needs for a long time.

Alisa Klein, former city councilor, said that having worked with domestic violence survivors for decades, she has had person after person ask her for alternatives to calling the police.

Sophie Maki of Ward 3 said she was hearing lots of people in power naming “systemic” issues, but not proposing systemic solutions.

Frannie Choi of Ward 1 brought up the recently passed resolution against anti-Asian and -Asian-American racism, which she said was “beautifully worded,” but meaningless if not followed up with action. She asked that the council retract the resolution if they chose to increase police spending.

Samantha Reidel of Ward 3 found the council’s response “reprehensible” and that it was insulting to suggest that everyone was present because of the quarantine. She brought up an incident in which police accosted someone who was allegedly using heroin in Pulaski Park, who put a knife to his own throat because he had outstanding warrants. The police drew their guns on the man and eventually took him into custody by shooting him with a “less lethal weapon.”

Dan Cannity of Northampton said at a 2014 Mike Brown protest he was followed for 10 minutes by a NPD officer with his hand on his weapon, and it took his white friends standing between him and the officer to get him to back off. He shared that he is still routinely followed on his walk home from work.

Jake Wise of Ward 1 said he often sees police driving up and down King Street in the middle of the night with nothing to do and wonders why that money can’t be spent on de-icing the sidewalks he often has to traverse. He also said he has never lived in a place that is so self-congratulatory, and has a friend who was chased down and beaten by NPD officers while having a mental breakdown and now refuses to come back to the city at all.

Ace Tayloe of Ward 3 noted that the police chief, captains, and lieutenants all make more than the mayor, and that if Chief Kasper is so worried about the scheduled raises, she could accept a pay cut.

Budget hearings continue tonight at 7:05pm followed by a City Council meeting in which the council will discuss and vote on the mayor’s proposed budget. The council votes on everything twice and this will be the first vote, the second vote will happen at their next scheduled meeting. 

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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