By The Shoestring
Many readers who have followed our work since the beginning know that we started the project in the midst of the 2017 Northampton police surveillance debate. Since then, we have released a lot of writing about prisons and police in our area. We have covered everything from Chief Kasper’s planned trip to train with the IDF in Israel to the racist origins of the “Thin Blue Line” pro-police flag. As the Northampton police budget is now under unprecedented scrutiny in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, The Shoestring is compiling a list of pieces on the Northampton Police Department and more.
When Chief Jody Kasper proposed installing police surveillance cameras in 2017, the business community had lobbied for them months before the public caught wind of it. The reason the city needed surveillance cameras Kasper and the business community said was to stop crime. Suzanne Beck, then head of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, framed the issue around “find[ing] common ground around a really simple question: Do we want to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit?” In “Will Surveillance Cameras Stop Wage Theft?” we asked Beck if she would support putting police surveillance cameras inside of business owners’ offices to hold them accountable for wage theft.
Northampton is a town that supports the arts and the creativity of its residents. The Mayor is a budding playwright who chose to promote his work via a spat with The Shoestring on Twitter. And the police department even made their own movie. “Northampton Recruitment” is designed to entice officers to join the force. In our double review of the five minute film, we examine how it conforms to the genre conventions of police marketing.
After the Northampton Police Department’s “High Five Friday” became a national culture war controversy and was thus cancelled, the department got a grant from Wal-Mart to print baseball-style police trading cards that the city’s kids could collect. Once a child collected all 50 cards, he/she/they could receive a ride to school in a police cruiser. Our piece “Trading Cards” considers the role of private philanthropy in shaping police community relations and quotes Chief Kasper’s book, where she argues that community policing is outdated in a “new era” rooted in “homeland security, terrorism, and fear.”
Our piece “Militarizing Northampton” exposed a hidden capital request to purchase riot equipment for police. The piece helped to fill the council chambers with residents demanding the council vote against the allocation. We then followed up with two more pieces. The first “Questions About the Police Capital Request” listed questions that the Mayor and Police Chief failed to answer. Soon after, Chief Kasper released a memo describing the rationale for the request which we responded to in a piece called “Fact Checking Jody Kasper”. As documented in our recurring column, I Go To City Council Meetings, despite dozens of testimonies against the allocation, only one councilor, Alisa Klein, voted against it.
The Shoestring piece that has been viewed the most in recent weeks is our interview with policing scholar Alex Vitale about his provocative book The End of Policing. The long interview titled “The Police Can’t Fix That” covers quite a bit of ground from policing’s roots (containing colonial uprisings and patrolling slaves) to why punitive armed police are ineffective at best in fixing problems like drug use or homelessness.
Documents obtained via public records request revealed the amount of money which Baystate Franklin paid the Greenfield Police to contain a nurses’ strike. “Which Side Are The Police On?” raises questions about who the police serve and protect, suggesting that, in this case, their power was deployed to back up hospital owners.
Northampton bills itself as a sanctuary city, meaning that its police department does not honor ICE detainer requests. But through an investigative report based on documents obtained by the Massachusetts ACLU, the public learned that ICE has a back door through a piece of software called COP LINK, which records police encounters with the public such as arrests. The Shoestring soon reported that despite the city’s sanctuary status, Northampton uses COP LINK and had no safeguards to block federal authorities from accessing its data. Not long after, the Mayor did a Mayday event with the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, where he pledged his support for the Safe Communities Act, a bill that would make it illegal for local law enforcement agencies to share their data with federal law enforcement. Our follow up piece documents Narkewicz’s contradictory stance on protecting immigrants from ICE and spoke to immigrant workers who called on him to stop the NPD’s use of COP LINK.
A source revealed to The Shoestring that an Assistant District Attorney argued police witnesses could not be trusted to be reliable witnesses in court in stating the results of their implicit bias tests. In “Assistant District Attorney Says Police Witnesses Are Not Trustworthy,” we explore how an event in our local court is constitutive of a larger trend: the malleability of police orators.
Before the debacle over surveillance cameras, where community activism thwarted the Chief’s proposal, the NPD had acquired drones that are used to monitor protests in the city and, according to someone who attended the NPD’s Citizen Police Academy, “to look for missing children and old folks who have dementia”. FOIA activist Shawn Musgrave submitted a records request in 2013 to learn if the NPD possessed drone technology. The NPD didn’t respond until he sent his 80th follow up email on November 28th 2016, the same day the NPD purchased a drone from Amazon. Although Kasper’s response was dated November 28th, when it could have presumably been true that there were no records of NPD drones, she didn’t send it until December 1st, when some of those records certainly did exist. In “If Pigs Could Fly” we spoke to ACLU and local activists involved in the struggle against surveillance cameras to understand how the cameras sparked public outrage and how drones flew (quite literally) under the radar.
Over the past few years, a new pro-police flag has swept the state and the nation—a black and grey American flag with a thin blue line through it to signify something about the police. In “Reading Between the Thin Blue Lines” we learn that the phrase was coined by Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker in the 1950s, who suggested that police are the “thin blue line” protecting middle class whites from “godless communists, murderous thugs and the widespread dangers and decay of modern urban life.” After the 1965 Watts Riots he warned, “by 1970, 45% of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro. . . . If you want any protection for your home and family . . . you’re going to have to get in and support a strong Police Department. If you don’t, come 1970, God help you.”
In collaboration with our friends at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, we were pleased to co-publish a feature on how police departments all over the state buy weapons from dealers who have violated state laws. The piece “Fire Sale Pt. 1” breaks the ice on the extent to which police arms dealing is a corrupt and rotten enterprise.
Chief Kasper was invited to go to Israel to train with the Israeli Defense Force, who maintain a genocidal occupation of Palestine that has been found to violate international law. Mayor Narkewicz announced that he was cancelling the trip after a group of activists and one city councilor lobbied him to do so. In “Birthright for Cops” we explore documentation of ADL police trips to Israel and how they teach racial profiling and the supression of dissent.
In “Cop Xmas” we examine a federal grant to the Holyoke Police Department to purchase Tasers, “less lethal” stun guns that frequently kill people. The department also received federal money to police “dangerous” intersections in the city, backed by quotas for stops. The piece and our city council column covers a donation from Walmart on King St. to “gift” ammunition to the NPD. The gift was withdrawn due to community pressure.
We published an in depth look at use of force against those incarcerated at the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton. In “Rights, Cameras, Extractions” via public records requests, The Shoestring revealed that “Camp Hamp” as the jail is colloquially called used pepper spray to subdue inmates more frequently than comparably sized Berkshire and Franklin jails combined in 2017, the year reviewed in the piece. More troubling, the investigation revealed that the jail does not film use of force incidents—a universally commonplace practice—making accountability more difficult.
In another exhaustive investigative report that surveyed hundreds of records, The Shoestring revealed the extensive use of pepper spray against those with psychiatric impairments at the Hampden County Jail. As many as half of the incarcerated people at the Ludlow facility need some type of mental health support, and yet the “treatment” frequently on offer is chemical weapons, which are banned in international wars, and especially damaging to those with mental disabilities. One survey wrote that Massachusetts “jails have turned into psychiatric hospitals.” “Hampden County’s Pepper Spray Problem” documents the extensive use of force deployed against those most vulnerable to chemical substances that can have harmful and lasting effects.
Our partners at Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism got their hands on a report that documented 30 years of State Police dysfunction. The following quote from a surveyed officer is particularly damning. “The perception of many members may be summarized by the remark of one made in the course of this study: ‘Nothing you can recommend or say in this report you’re doing will result in positive reform of any kind—the absolute only thing that will happen is management will comb through it trying to figure out who said what so they can mete out their usual vindictive, vicious, and arbitrary punishments; there is no interest whatsoever in progress or competence, and wherever the management can lash out and make people pay for telling the truth, believe me they will—as they have in the past, many times, without hesitation and without logic.’”
In “Pigs and Chicken” we wrote about the Chicopee Police Department’s frequent collaboration with Chik-fil-A, which is known for its public anti-LGBTQ stances and its corporate donations to anti-LGBTQ causes and groups, including to organizations classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as the widespread animal abuse in its supply chain. Human rights abusers fit together like chicken and pickles between a bun.
Instead of covering the District Attorney Dave Sulivan’s War on Drugs and failure to stop drug supplies by jailing and arresting dealers, The Daily Hampshire Gazette allowed the DA’s spokesperson to pen a four part series “raising awareness” about the “danger” of fentanyl. In “When Law Enforcement Covers Opioids,” our longest media criticism piece ever, we explore how the paper violated journalistic norms, the DA’s failure to stop overdose deaths, and the author’s misunderstanding of the opioid crisis — which was created by a deliberate political project designed to criminalize social movement and legitimize the expansion of the prison state, not “stigma.”
Additional pieces on the role of police and the prison industrial complex in our communities include: The Political Nature of Objectivity, It Has to Go Way Beyond the Decriminalization of Sex Work, How to Support the National Prison Strike,A Step Towards Decriminalization of Selling Sex, and Cops and Corporations Traumatized Us.
In addition to our work, we’d like to make known the eleven public records requests to Northampton Police Department weapons made by others as documented on Muckrock.
The story of local policing is still rapidly unfolding. Northampton Police Captain Robert Powers went viral Monday after saying to the protesting crowd that “one bad hamburger at McDonalds does not make McDonald’s bad.” At the same protest, teengers were pepper sprayed. Today, at the time of writing, the state police have brought armored tanks and back up from multiple departments to police a protest against increased police funding and white supremacy.