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A Brief History of Northampton’s Policing Review Commission

The Commission’s first report is due tomorrow. How well was it set up to deliver strong recommendations?

By Brian Z. Zayatz

After months of unrest locally and nationally demanding the defunding of police departments, municipalities around the country experimented with different levels of policing budget cuts and studies to determine the future of policing. Northampton’s Policing Review Commission, which was created alongside a 10% funding cut to the NPD, is set to present its first report on January 7th with recommendations relating to NPD spending and contracts, policies and services, and possible alternatives to policing in which the city might consider investing. A second report specifically addressing changes to the city’s budget will come out early in the spring as Mayor Narkewicz drafts the FY2022 budget. What follows is a history of the formation of the Policing Review Commission, a look at what it’s done so far, and a word from the abolitionists who have lobbied and challenged the Commission since its inception.

Origins and Formation

The first inklings of what would become the PRC can be found in an exchange from the special City Council meeting of June 10th, 2020. Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra and Mayor Narkewicz referred back to this conversation many times in the meetings that followed, citing a request on the part of the other councilors that the two of them come up with some sort of plan. This is not actually what happened. What follows is a detailed account of what was originally said and how it was framed afterwards. 

After several sessions in which members of the public gave many hours of testimony arguing for the defunding of the police department, the Councilors pushed the decision to a special meeting. Many of the councilors expressed discomfort with heeding the significant demands of the public for a funding cut of 35-50% without alternatives in place, and spent much of the meeting discussing possible paths forward in different defunding scenarios. 

The first mention of creating a body to study possible paths into a less policed Northampton came from Councilor Rachel Maiore of Leeds, who suggested the Council create a select committee. After more discussion, culminating in an exchange between Mayor Narkewicz and Councilor Alex Jarrett of Florence regarding the possibility of reallocating funds in the middle of the fiscal year, Councilor Maiore chimed in again, wondering aloud, “since this is our first reading, and then we have a second reading next Thursday, there’s time in that week for us to do a little bit more and get some of that commitment [for a plan to address policing issues] down before we vote again and finalize this budget.” Were the Council to fail to pass an amended budget before July 1st, the Mayor’s proposed budget would have taken effect automatically.

Mayor Narkewicz responded to Councilor Maiore with an apparently different understanding of her use of the word “we”: “Certainly I’m happy to have a more extended conversation with the Council President to talk about that, that’s certainly, you know, and come back to you with some initial thoughts of what that structure might look like. I certainly can commit to that,” he said. “Again, a lot of the things we’re talking about are gonna require study and thought, but in terms of the actual process and how it’d be structured, that’s certainly something we could talk about and try to put together some kind of an outline of what that could be, possibly even a structure of what that might look like, between now and next Thursday.” Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra affirmed she would also be happy to work on this.

This assurance moved the Council along in its first vote on the budget, with Councilors Maiore and Jarrett agreeing to vote in favor with the understanding that to vote down the budget would, ironically, almost guarantee that it be put into effect, and that they expected the Mayor and Council President to put forward a plan that, in Councilor Maiore’s words, would put the city’s money where its mouth is with regards to police reform. Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) noted that it didn’t sound like there would be public input in the plan.

I recount this exchange in such detail because, in the meetings that followed, it was repeatedly mischaracterized by Council President Sciarra. At the following meeting, on June 18th, Councilor Sciarra and Mayor Narkewicz presented their plan and invited thoughts from the Council. Councilor Labarge opened discussion by asking why the entire Council wasn’t consulted on the structure of the proposed Policing Review Commission. “Well, Councilor Labarge, actually, the Council tasked us with this job,” replied Councilor Sciarra, explaining that to have included the entire Council would’ve meant that they would be subject to open meeting law, and would’ve had to make such a meeting public. Councilor Labarge asked why they didn’t do that, to which Councilor Sciarra responded that “the Council did not ask for that, the Council asked that the Mayor and I put this together and bring forward this proposal.” When Councilor Labarge expressed frustration shortly thereafter at being presented something and then asked to deliberate it, Councilor Sciarra again said, “this is what you asked us to do.”

The Councilors spoke about this matter for nearly an hour on the 18th and even continued discussion to yet another special meeting, and yet, since the proposal was for a joint commission, it did not necessitate any vote from the Councilors, as creating a joint committee is something the Mayor and Council President can do without a vote. Councilors Jarrett and Maiore had a resolution on the agenda for the 18th establishing a select committee, which would be entirely under the purview of the Council, unlike the joint commission, but postponed it until the next regular meeting following the special meeting to discuss the joint commission. Whether the unveiling of the joint commission plan had a moderating or encouraging effect is hard to say, but later that evening the Council agreed on a 10% cut to the policing budget, despite objections from the Mayor and Chief Kasper, and dissenting votes from Councilors Jim Nash and John Thorpe, who both represents downtown wards (Councilor Labarge also voted against, though she later claimed it was because she thought 10% was too low).

At the special meeting to discuss the proposal for the commission, Councilor Jarrett asked for clarification on what the Council’s role was in approving the commission, given that the Mayor could establish it on his own. Mayor Narkewicz did not give a direct answer, instead describing what the commission was and repeating Councilor Sciarra’s version of events in which the Council asked her and the Mayor to come up with this plan. Councilor Jarrett pushed back, saying “we said, ‘oh, that sounds like a good idea,’ but never voted on it.” Councilor Sciarra then jumped in with another non-answer that again reiterated that “you all asked me to do it.”

This meeting was only for discussion purposes and did not move towards a vote. At first, Councilors Maiore and Jarrett seemed interested in discussing the pros and cons of having a select committee instead of or in addition to a joint commission. Many public commenters had spoken against the Mayor’s degree of influence on the commission, choosing six out of fifteen appointees, since he had so staunchly opposed any change to the police budget and has a history of angling to give the police whatever they want. When Councilor Jarrett suggested the Council vote on the commission, the Mayor responded that “the idea that somehow I don’t represent all the residents of Northampton, I just don’t understand that concept.”

As discussion continued, it moved away from whether or not the Council should approve of the commission and instead focused on what, if any, amendments should be made to the proposal. The changes that were enacted as a result of this discussion were relatively minor, including a holistic application process, as well as some changes to the language around the commission’s charge, and that the commission need not disband after issuing its reports.

At the July 9th City Council meeting, Councilors Maiore and Jarrett withdrew their resolution establishing a select committee (which had still received a significant amount of support during public comment), noting that they could always come back to this option should the commission seem unsatisfactory. Councilor Sciarra introduced a resolution approving of the commission, which included baked into its text the fabrication that “the City Council asked Council President Sciarra and Mayor Narkewicz to bring to the next meeting and before the second vote on the FY2021 General Fund a plan for both branches to work together to bring about meaningful change to policing and public safety.”

Before voting, the subject of deliberation on prospective members arose. Councilor Sciarra said she was waiting for guidance from the state Attorney General’s office on whether her meeting with the two Council appointees would be subject to open meeting law (she told me later via email that she received confirmation that it would be). She also said she did not want deliberation to be public, since the applications were likely to contain personally sensitive information. Councilor Dwight agreed that the Councilors would have to have trust in her, and that deliberating publicly would likely delay the commission’s formation. The resolution passed in two readings unanimously except for Councilor Maiore’s abstention. During the month of August, Council President Sciarra alone chose seven of fifty applicants to be the Council’s remaining representatives on the commission, after revealing that Councilors Jarrett and Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) would themselves serve.

To summarize, the commission was created more or less unilaterally by two people representing the highest elected offices in the city. They ultimately reserved all power to amend the proposal and made only minor tweaks to it at the request of City Councilors, and repeatedly sought to mislead both the Councilors and the public about their mandate to create the commission. They handpicked all of the commissioners themselves.

What (or who) makes a commission?

Commissions have long been a tool of those in power to avoid confrontations over unjust systems which they uphold—the New York Times recommended a commission to study slavery in 1859, suggesting that calls for abolition had “retarded emancipation;” the British offered to study the ills of the opium trade, from which they profited, on the brink of the Opium Wars. Though the Kerner Commission was not the first commission studying police and race relations in the US, it was perhaps the most exhaustive, and, though damning, it was ignored by President Johnson, who was offended by the results. Since then, commissions on policing in the US have alternately included activists and sapped the energy of emergent movements, or leaned heavily towards professionals who make reformist recommendations—in either case, little changes.

So, who are Northampton’s commissioners, and how diverse are they in terms of viewpoints and lived experience of policing and movement work? The original proposal for the PRC stipulated that at least eight of its fifteen members should be people of color, with an emphasis on black and indigenous people. In their appointments, the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra exceeded this minimum by one. The original fifteen commissioners introduced themselves as such at their first meeting:

  • Lois Ahrens, a 40-year Northampton resident whose career in activism began with Gay Liberation in the 1960s. She is the founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project.
  • *Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, a 12-year Northampton resident and President and CEO of the San Francisco based Women’s Funding Network.
  • *Dr. Booker Bush, who has lived in Florence since 2009, also serves on Northampton’s Human Rights Commission. He is a physician at Bay State Health and is frequently involved in caring for people recently released from prison. 
  • Dan Cannity, who has lived in Northampton for two years, but as a queer youth growing up in the area, spent a lot of time here. He has done graduate work at UMass in sociology and has been involved with Jobs with Justice and the Student Labor Action Project.
  • *Nick Fleisher, who has lived in Northampton for 40 years after attending the Smith School of Social Work. He has worked for 15 years as an administrator overseeing crisis services at local hospitals. 
  • *Attorney David Hoose, a 41-year Western Mass resident and public defender turned private practice criminal defense attorney.
  • City Councilor Alex Jarrett, a 22-year Northampton resident and co-founder and -owner of the Pedal People Cooperative.
  • Carmen Lopez, a three-year Northampton resident and proud Puerto Rican. She is a school adjustment counselor in Springfield with a background in mental health.
  • Javier Luengo-Garrido, an immigrant from Chile and attorney with ACLU Massachusetts.
  • Dana Olivo, a five-year Northampton resident and mother of three.
  • Dr. Nnamdi Pole, a professor of psychology at Smith College and licensed clinical social worker, whose area of research is police trauma.
  • City Councilor Michael Quinlan, inspired by engagement of the public during budget hearings.
  • *Josey Rosales, a Guatemalan-born high school history teacher in Pittsfield. Josey attended UMass Amherst and at 24 they are the youngest member of the commission.
  • *Cynthia Suopis, a 30 year Northampton resident who taught health communications at UMass. She also serves on the city’s Board of Health.
  • Larissa Rivera-Gonzalez, whose father was a NYPD officer and whose husband is black.

(*: Mayoral appointee. All other commissioners appointed by City Council President Sciarra)

The selection is certainly more racially diverse than Northampton’s total population. As far as other, less visible axes of oppression are concerned, it’s harder to tell. Ten of the fifteen professed implicitly or explicitly to have at least a bachelor’s degree, and at least six have advanced degrees. This tracks roughly with available demographic data for Northampton, but if the point in appointing a majority people of color to the commission was to have people most impacted by policing be the ones to study it, having the group be so highly educated seems a departure from the guiding principle. 

What became evident through the many hours of public testimony in the spring was that the groups in Northampton who most commonly experienced negative interactions with the police in Northampton, beyond black people, are people without stable housing and people who experience mental health issues, as well as their respective loved ones. None of the members of the commission professed to lack stable housing, and while it is of course impossible to know if someone has mental health issues without asking them invasive questions, the presence of mental health professionals on the commission suggests that the Mayor and Councilor Sciarra were more interested in professional representation than direct representation.

What’s more, three of these original fifteen commissioners have stepped down, Larissa Rivera-Gonzalez and Carmen Lopez towards the beginning, and Dana Olivo, who was co-chair, in early December—notably, three women of color. Of the three, only Rivera-Gonzalez responded to request for comment, who said she was not able to devote the time she felt the work deserved as a parent of two. Commission Chair Dan Cannity relayed during a December 22nd meeting that the impediment was the same for Lopez and Olivo. Discussion at that meeting led to Cannity’s offering to look into local childcare options, and to request that Lopez and Olivo be replaced on the commission with a preference for younger women of color and parents, which at the January 5th meeting he reported was not possible. (For context, Cannity told me he spends 10-12 hours per week on Commission business).

Three and a half months of meetings

Since late September, the Commission and its subcommittees have held, by my count, 35 meetings, which appear to clock in at about three hours each.

The Commission’s charge is effectively twofold: to gather information, and issue recommendations. The former task is, in its own right, gargantuan. The Commission, particularly the Policies and Services subcommittee and the Spending and Contracts subcommittee, have looked to the NPD itself for information. The former subcommittee has sought to compare the policies and services claimed by the NPD to the lived experience of the community’s most policed, but has run into issues gathering testimony for such a comparison (more on this below). The Spending and Contracts subcommittee has spent much time simply trying to ascertain how much NPD officers are actually paid, given difficult-to-track detail work and overtime hours. The Alternatives to Policing subcommittee has sought contact with local and national peer-led crisis response groups and other experts. 

The commission has approached data received from the NPD with a healthy skepticism. “When we started to look at policies, we realized that the policies are actually not badly written,” said Commissioner Nick Fleisher of the Policies and Services subcommittee, “but that the policies don’t describe what happens.” Even so, the data itself has at times been lackluster in its ability to shed much light on how policing happens in the city, despite Chief Kasper receiving accolades for the department’s transparency. Both Policies and Services and Spending and Contracts were interested in a breakdown of how the NPD spends their time to determine what services might be better performed by other parties, and how funding could be reallocated accordingly. On January 4th, Spending and Contracts subcommittee member Josey Rosales presented that the logs provided to the commission accounted for less than 4% of person-hours worked by NPD officers. 

All three subcommittees, as well as the commission as a whole, have also relied on testimony from the public during hearings and regular meetings, despite the shortcomings of the format. At a December 1st public hearing, several members of the public urged the commissioners to create a protocol for receiving anonymous or private testimony, as they personally knew of individuals who were reluctant to testify on Zoom for fear of police retaliation. Cannity told me in December that while the commission had hoped to set up a working group to focus on collecting private testimony, City Solicitor Alan Seewald advised him that legally there was no way around open meeting law. This development prompted the creation of a new subcommittee on community outreach. Cannity noted at the December 22nd meeting that the subcommittee would be reaching out to the Forbes Library, the Western Mass BIPOC Advisory Council, the Recovery Learning Center, and Touch the Sky, as well as other groups not yet identified. The subcommittee would conduct interviews, and would have some ability to guarantee anonymity to interviewees if requested.

One thing that has become clear about the commission during its months of activity is that it is to some degree ideologically diverse. In general, commissioners seem to share an understanding that part of their mandate from the public is to begin to consider how to shift resources and services away from police, but, as the already extended deadline for the first report approaches, there is still not much consensus on how and to what degree to do this. “It’s hard to make recommendations without that [agreed upon] path forward,” said Cannity, noting that the report might look more like “contingency planning rather than recommendations.”

“We’re doing stuff that lots of other cities and municipalities are doing, but we’re all doing it concurrently, nobody’s really done this work before,” Cannity continued. “Nobody seems to have done this for the city of Northampton for anything before. The Northampton Police Department doesn’t have a strategic plan at all.”

Even while still figuring out the best ways to take in data from the public and speak to relevant experts, the commissioners spent much of their December meetings on drafting their first report. Because of open meeting law, work sessions have been public, taking place over Zoom. In order for members of the public to provide feedback on drafts, they would have to attend the Zoom meetings or watch later on YouTube to see the documents via screen share, and follow up with commissioners. City Councilor Alex Jarrett, however, provided access to a copy of the draft report for the Alternatives to Policing subcommittee, of which he is a member, to members of the public who had been attending the commission’s meetings. The Alternatives subcommittee also held two public work sessions, in which commissioners and the public could directly interface about the report’s language, which is not allowed in the standard meeting format. (I have had difficulty obtaining other of the commission’s documents, and the most recent minutes posted to the commission’s website are from October).

 Abolitionist perspectives

The activists whose pressure led to the formation of the commission have not gone away. Because of the pandemic, there was never any one venue for concerned members of the public to congregate, as some people would inevitably be missing on any given virtual platform. Despite this, networks formed, and a number of individuals who showed up to City Council meetings in the spring still routinely show up to the PRC’s meetings.

Some of these individuals have gone on to form a new organization, called Northampton Abolition Now, which works to “to move money from the police department into programs that make our community truly safe and help all of us to thrive.” The group jointly responded to request for comment, appropriately, via Google Docs.

“As students of the history of racism and of social movements, we regard commissions and investigations with considerable suspicion,” they write. “There is a longstanding pattern of governments launching commissions to investigate hot-button issues as a way to placate activists and avoid taking meaningful action… The problem is that we already know that policing harms Black people, and that police do not keep us safe. These commissions [of the last several decades] have yielded no meaningful improvements for Black and brown people, and have instead generally suggested reforms that funnel more money into police departments, growing, rather than shrinking, their violent footprint.”

Yet, anyone following the Northampton PRC would concede that such an outcome seems unlikely. Northampton Abolition Now seemed to agree, but recognized that even strong reports from the commission would be only a step in the right direction.

“If the commission makes strong recommendations, but the Mayor and City Council fail to act on them,” they continued, “then community organizers will respond by taking steps to ensure that the Mayor and Council remain accountable to the process and to the will of the people.”

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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