I Go to City Council Meetings #30

Police budget

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Wednesday, June 10th, the Northampton City Council held a special meeting via Zoom with one agenda item, that being the general fund budget, which was tabled after 2am at their last meeting following a motion by Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) to level funding with the current year’s budget. Approximately 385 members of the public were in attendance virtually.

Mayor Narkewicz submitted a revised order for approval of his budget along with a formal request for withdrawal of the previous order. The new order eliminated the increase for police funding, which was almost $194,000, and instead cut the police budget by $19,000, or 0.28%. The Mayor arranged these cuts so that they would not affect personal services, and merely cut back on new cruiser purchases (two instead of the originally proposed five) and trainings. As much of the discussion at last week’s meeting was spent proposing different ways to arrange the police budget to level funding, the new order appears to speak to the councilors’ concerns. Mayor Narkewicz wrote in his request for withdrawal that the substitution came “out of respect and deference to both public and City Council concerns.” 

The Mayor’s request also reiterates that, given the likelihood that more cuts will have to happen during the fiscal year, he will not reallocate any funds that the council chooses to cut.

Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) skipped her usual opening from last week, a meditation on “what we can do to bring about change,” to inform the public that public comment would be limited to two hours, and that, as we all want to hear voices that haven’t had a chance to speak yet, “you have to make space.”

41 people spoke during public comment, 37 of whom spoke clearly to defunding not only the proposed budget increase, but much more of the police budget, with many calling for a one-third or 35% cut. Many speakers spoke directly or indirectly to a disappointment with the Councilors’ and Mayor’s statements and actions since last week. Here are just a few of the comments:

Daniel Cannity, who spoke last week, said, “this isn’t new, it’s just the first time we feel like we might be heard.”

Nicole Lerue, of Easthampton, who also spoke last week, again mentioned her grandfather who was a judge in apartheid South Africa. “In order for supremacist structures to exist,” she said, “people like you have to make budget decisions.” She went on to say that while some of the people who have played this historical role have been overtly racist, others were simply making personal risk/benefit calculations.

Oriana Reilly spoke to say that in only the eight hours before the meeting, she had had nine businesses in town sign on to a letter demanding a 35% cut to the police budget.

Dana Goldblatt spoke to Chief Kasper’s unwillingness to take criticism, particularly regarding the show of force at last week’s Black Lives Matter protest. She also went into the science of identifying cars that are likely to be driven by black or latino drivers, something which Capt. Robert Powers has allegedly trained others in the force to do. This practice had ultimately ended up in one of Goldblatt’s clients being deported.

Saraphina Forman, of Sunrise Northampton, reminded the council of their resolution in support of the Green New Deal and said that buying hybrid police cruisers is not in line with the values expressed in the resolution. If the Council is serious about climate action, she urged them to cut the police budget by 35%.

Jina Kim, a Smith professor from Ward 2, gave some historical context of bloated police budgets, pointing out that this did not become the norm until the 1970s and ‘80s, and was concurrent with a bleeding out of social services and public schools.

Kathleen Rose of Ward 1 recounted an incident when she called the police on her abusive ex-husband when he showed up at her house on Mothers’ Day several years ago despite a restraining order. He refused to leave and she was pushing him away from her porch, and was ultimately arrested herself because, as the responding officer told her, “someone has to be arrested today.”

Three people also spoke in support of the police, two of whom, Catherine Kay and “Jane Doe,” arguing against the numerous abuse survivors or DV workers who called for getting police out of domestic violence work. Jane Doe said that a “blue lives matter” flag should be put up, and said police deserved raises, despite already being the highest paid city employees. Susan McGuire also echoed this last call.

At roughly 7:30pm, discussion began, after a recess, technical difficulties, going through the process of separating out the Pedal People line item, with which Councilor Jarrett has a conflict of interest. Mayor Narkewicz opened with a defense of his new proposal, which several speakers had called “insulting” and “performative,” saying it was meant to do what it seemed the council was going to do at last week’s meeting. He again said this proposal was meant to honor the “legally binding” contract the city has with the police union, a claim which has been publicly challenged by a local UAW chapter. He also said he plans to sit down with Councilor Sciarra to come up with a plan to take in all the information from the public. 

Councilor Jarret asked the Mayor a few questions about the declining crime rate and why the NPD has 17 more officers than the average for similar sized cities. The Mayor responded that, on a weekend, the city presents as much larger, given the high rate of visitorship, although of course this does not apply during the pandemic. He also said that the declining crime rate would not be taken as a reason to cut the force, since the department receives lots of calls for other things, like the opioid epidemic. Until there was an alternative in place, he could not see cutting the police force. 

Councilor Jarrett also asked about the show of force at Saturday’s protest, saying that it escalated tensions and chilled people’s freedom of expression. Mayor Narkewicz said that, “one of the challenges was where to stage people,” seeming to echo Chief Kasper’s regret that people saw state police in military gear arriving. He also parrotted now infamous lines about outside agitators, and ultimately seemed to suggest that the show of force was successful in keeping people safe by keeping them away from buildings, as opposed to the last protest when people climbed on the walls. When Jarrett finally asked about the teenagers who were pepper sprayed at the protest nearly two weeks ago, the Mayor said the conversation was getting away from the budget matters at hand and refused to answer.

The Mayor also noted, in response to Councilor Nash, that former President Obama gave a talk about use of force policy last week and put out a pledge for Mayors to review such policy, to which Mayor Narkewicz has signed on.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) said it was time to think outside the box, and that she had “never felt that way before as a councilor.” She said that she had received 2,631 emails, that she went to the protest and was glad she left early because she was “not too happy about that armored truck.” She went on to say that the city should hire social workers when police officers retire, and argued for a community oversight board with legal power.

Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) said, “this is what the community was hoping to hear last week,” and also noted that former Mayor Claire Higgins declared climate change an emergency and put together a committee, Mayor Narkewicz had done something similar with panhandling, and that he thought it was time to do the same for racism.

Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) gave a lengthy monologue about how the debate was not just about defunding, but about what it means to be policed. 

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) said she agrees with the public that the proposed cut is not enough, and that the process of reimagining policing in Northampton needed to be thoughtful, but not gradual. She argued that the Council needs to move forward on creating a committee to explore alternatives, budgeting, and oversight of the police, but that she was unsure how to leave this budget season in a way that assures the public that the city is on a different path. The Mayor then reminded her, as he did after her proposal for a “Department of Transformative Justice” last week, that the City Council alone cannot create new agencies.

Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) echoed calls for an oversight board, saying she recognized the bravery it took for people to recount their traumatic incidents with police publicly, and that she has also had “constituents reach out and say, ‘you are my councilor and I want you to represent my view, too.’”

Regarding a civilian oversight board, Councilor Labarge reiterated, “that’s what they’re asking for.”

Councilor Sciarra said she knows there is distrust and hurt, but she thinks there is a way forward. “I want us to work together towards reform,” she said, noting that she didn’t just want to “issue a report or recommendations.”

Councilor Dwight replied that a lot of the councilors’ suggestions for further actions are not within the Council’s power, and urged the public to be in touch with state legislators as well. “I cannot bring myself to propose such a large cut at this time,” he said, “given that I don’t know how we would address the issues that would actually have a benefit for people.”

Councilor Jarrett said he had observed in conversations with people the racial disparity in perceptions of the NPD and expressed support for cutting the budget further, but “wanted to have a plan in place.” He believes that the city needs a new department, and knows that city council cannot do that alone. He also spoke in support of participatory budgeting, saying that he did not want the police union to get in the way of public safety. He also noted that while there is another vote coming up next week, the council will not have this power for another year after June. He asked if the council reduced the budget, would they be allowed to reallocate later. After several unclear answers from the Mayor and City Solicitor Alan Seewald, the three men appeared to land on the conclusion that the way to do this would be to pass the funding and transfer it later in the fiscal year in a way that would involve cuts to the police in order to fund a new department.

The Mayor then offered to work with Councilor Sciarra before the June 18th meeting to come up with a proposal for a path forward. Councilor Jarrett said he would vote yes understanding that if the budget was voted down, the Mayor’s proposal would pass automatically come July 1st. Councilor Maiore echoed this sentiment, as did Councilor Quinlan, who started tearing up when talking about the testimony he’d heard over the last two weeks. Councilor Labarge thanked Councilor Sciarra for the long hours she had put in, but noted that Sciarra and the Mayor’s proposal for next week did not sound like it was going to have public input. Councilor Maiore added that she came in prepared to vote down the budget, and would be prepared to do so next week pending the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra’s proposal.

The order, with the Pedal People budget removed, passed first reading unanimously, and when it was added back in, the order passed again with yes votes from all except Councilor Jarrett, who had removed himself due to his conflict of interest.

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

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