The Northampton Policing Review Commission’s First Report Offers Tepid Interest in Bold Ideas

Commissioners explored reforms that would reduce violence and improve services. Now they should commit to advocating for them.


By Brian Zayatz

The Northampton Policing Review Commission (PRC) finalized their first report after a deadline extension at a meeting on Tuesday, January 5th. Commission Chair Dan Cannity presented the report to City Council two days later, focusing much of his presentation on the report’s recommendations towards redistributing police responsibilities in the city to unarmed responders trained for specific circumstances. 

The report is a product of several months of work on behalf of the commission and its three subcommittees, which have each shown fairly distinct ideological orientations and approaches towards their respective charges, though they certainly all overlap at times as well. The report is organized into three parts corresponding to the work of each subcommittee: Alternatives to Policing (the bulk of the report), Policies and Services, and Spending and Contracts.

Alternatives to Policing

The Alternatives subcommittee recommends that non-criminal complaints be met by a “respondent with no gun,” and suggests a phased process of reducing the scope of policing in the city and redistributing responsibility to other entities, such as existing resources like Tapestry or ServiceNet, or peer-led programs like Western Mass Recovery Learning Center. They have also considered “co-respondent models,” wherein a non-police responder rides along with police and presumably leads the response, though there is little additional information about such a model. 

Commissioner Javier Luengo-Garrido rightly pointed out at the PRC’s January 5th meeting that agencies that currently work with the police, like ServiceNet, have a vested financial interest in the status quo, or something like it. Among public commenters, the clear favorite is for peer-led programs that remove police from the equation altogether. This is the model that is given the most ink in the report, particularly for mental health-related calls, including descriptions of Eugene, Oregon’s well established CAHOOTS program and several others.

Other subsections of this part of the report were not as thoroughly fleshed out, or contained concerning sentiments. The subsection on houselessness, for example, recommends a “housing first” approach, as well as a staffed coordination role to facilitate housing access to the various regional housing organizations. Responding via email, Commissioner Bush could not tell me whether to expect more detail on these suggestions in the second report (though he feels housing first is “critical”). Should the commission opt not to present more detail on how to make housing first a reality in Northampton, it’s hard to discern how the city would take action on the issue..

(Local grants for housing are funded through the Community Development Block Grant program, and, according to Sara LaValley from the city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability, the organizations who distribute those funds turned down additional money from the city’s Community Preservation Act funds. Napkin math would suggest that housing 50 people for one year at the local average 1-bedroom rate of $1300 per month would cost $780,000, which is less than was cut from the police budget in the spring and much less than the amount of free cash the city has on hand. Community Development Planner Keith Benoit told me that HUD limits CDBG funding to three consecutive months of rent in arrearages only, and so such redistribution would not be possible. It’s as yet unclear whether the Mayor could create a separate program to dispense more funds—even if he could, doing so would risk tarnishing his legacy of fiscal responsibility).

This subsection also does not profess to have spoken to any unhoused people in Northampton for the report, only “witnesses.” It also cites the Mayor Narkewicz’s Panhandling Work Group’s report as containing recommendations for “community consideration and engagement,” although the group was itself not known for its transparency or engagement of the community being studied. The PRC recently created a new subcommittee on Community Outreach, which hopefully means the public can expect more direct engagement of those most subjected to policing in the city.

The subsection on domestic violence is rather detailed and suggests economic approaches towards eliminating root causes and keeping survivors safe, as well as public health and restorative justice processes separate from the criminal legal system to curb violence when it does occur. Though it cites many of the legitimate reasons people have for not taking domestic violence to the police, it does at times defer to a belief that incarceration can play a meaningful role in violence prevention in a way that is dissonant with some of its stronger sentiments.

“In order for [restorative justice] programs to feel safe to those subjected to abuse,” writes Commissioner and City Councilor Alex Jarrett, “they must be able to decide the level of involvement by the criminal legal system.” Of course, having the option not to involve police in an incident of domestic violence will make many people feel better about seeking help in these situations. But conversely, why leave the option to involve police at all? Would any perpetrator of abuse choose to participate in a restorative justice program if they could still potentially be incarcerated? Whereas the subcommittee seems interested in having police more or less entirely removed from mental health crisis response, they waffle when it comes to domestic violence. A worker from a local DV agency told me that they “have seen the police be called more on survivors, than on their abusers. Houseless survivors are forced to rely on agencies that often wind up policing their behaviors in exchange for receiving services, which often leads to survivors being institutionalized against their will. More funding allocated towards DV agencies is not an appropriate alternative to policing if these agencies still instruct staff to call the police on clients.”

The bigger question behind this concern is, do we want people in our community to have the power to put other people in our community into cages? Under what circumstances? Should survivors of abuse have the power to decide that? It’s a big question, and one that the entire commission has danced around since its inception. Certainly, the commissioners are not of one mind on the issue, but they will have to address it, more or less explicitly, in order to release a coherent set of recommendations in March.

Policies and Services

On the other hand, the Policies and Services subcommittee (labelled Policies and Spending, I believe accidentally, in the report), does not show very much tension on this question. Their section of the report identifies “services” currently provided by the police and recommends ways their footprint can be reduced. But while they offer that “an authoritarian model of public safety can be controversial and at times detrimental,” this sentiment does not seem to strike them as counter to the entire institution of policing.

This section offers a look at the distribution of different types of calls coming into the NPD, which begins to give the reader some idea of to what degree the department would change were certain responsibilities shifted away from the police as described in the Alternatives section. It also offers a more specific look at certain current police responsibilities, such as traffic, school resources officers, rape and assault, and drone use.

The subcommittee finds that traffic stops always have the potential to become violent, and suggests reducing their frequency and scope by limiting the hours when these stops may occur, moving to more electronic enforcement (which City Councilor Bill Dwight pointed out would be difficult given the city’s anti-surveillance ordinances), or shifting traffic responsibilities to unarmed civilian responders.

The subcommittee also suggests that, if the benefit of having a school resource officer is primarily “emotional support,” that that need could be better filled by a guidance counselor, for example, and the city may continue its new practice of not having one after the state’s 2020 police reform bill gave municipalities the authority to choose whether to have one or not. In looking into sexual assault and rape policy, the subcommittee found that “minimal training, vague and confusing procedureslisted on public websites, as well as the lack of transparency and guaranteed service and response indicate that NPD is not well suited to provide services related to rape and sexual assault… There are currently more officers trained to operated drones than are trained to investigate rape” (Chief Kasper disputed this statistic in the Gazette).

The subsection on drones does not offer specific recommendations, but notes that the subcommittee will continue to look into drone policy. The subsection does name several of the NPD’s reported objectives in drone use, including search and rescue, tactical deployment (one example given of this is a hostage situation), crime scene documentation, and assisting the Fire Department. The last reported use of drones was during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which does make one wonder how crucial the drones are if none of these other circumstances arose over the course of the previous six months.

The Policies and Services subcommittee names their future plans as continuing to examine policies, proposing areas for reducing police footprint, and meeting with Chief Kasper—seeking input from the public, however, did not make the list. Why meet with Chief Kasper when even the local DA’s office does not expect cops to be truthful when asked of their shortcomings? The subcommittee concedes that “stated policies, however, do not always accurately define practice”—indeed, they would not have much work to do if they did not believe this—so wouldn’t it make more sense to ask those policed in Northampton of their experiences rather than expect cops to tell on themselves? Shouldn’t the evaluation of a “service” include feedback from those who use (or are subjected to) that service?

Spending and Contracts

The Spending and Contracts subcommittee opens its section with strong support for reallocation of money currently spent on policing towards other community services generally, and specifically to reallocate the funds already cut from the NPD budget towards housing the city’s unhoused and providing warming centers and public facilities such as showers and other sanitation needs. “This kind of investment is what was called for by hundreds of people who testified this summer during City Council meetings,” writes the subcommittee, “and is what was intended by the Council when they voted to reduce the NPD budget by 10%” (this seems hard to know, but the subcommittee does include City Councilor Michael Quinlan in its membership).

The subcommittee has also concerned itself with what further reallocation might look like, and has explored options around creating a new city department to coordinate among non-police resources like Tapestry, the Recovery Learning Center, and others, with ongoing oversight from those who use these services and those most impacted by traditional policing. They also considered that such a department could be additionally funded by taking cuts of police revenues from detail work and civil asset forfeiture—which seems another questionable practice to incorporate into a vision of a less-police Northampton—or by applying for grants, similarly to the Arts Council.

These suggestions are backed up with data on the relative share of funding the NPD receives in the city budget. According to their findings, police officers represent some of the highest paid employees in the city, which does not even account for detail work and overtime. In extreme cases, this has individual officers working over 100 hours per week, which is not only financially burdensome for the city but also a safety concern. Gross incomes from overtime alone ranged up to $13,000, and $75,000 for detail work. 

The subcommittee also tracks the growth of the NPD budget over time, citing a 41% increase in their budget over the last decade, in which crime actually fell by over 25%. They also note that police budgets are not known to correlate to crime rates. While the group has sought to break down NPD spending to correspond to the activities on which they spend their time, this has proven difficult as the police logs provided have been inadequate to make determinations about how NPD officers actually spend their time. The report notes that the logs amount to less than 4% of calculated hours worked by NPD officers, though Commissioner Cannity noted in his presentation to City Council that they may have overcalculated total hours worked by NPD officers, and that the logs may not give an accurate picture of NPD time as they don’t account for the fact that officers may often be doing more than one thing at once. Moving forward, the subcommittee intends to delve further into the history of the NPD’s budget increases to understand their context and make recommendations towards greater budgetary transparency and accountability.

Conclusion

The report contains many good ideas, but it is unfortunate that, in many cases, the commissioners seemed content to merely present good ideas rather than advocate them. At its best, the report makes strong statements in favor of new models of public safety that actually have a fighting chance of facilitating a healthier, less violent, and more inclusive Northampton; at its worst, it uncritically centers a status quo in which violence is addressed with more violence, and entertains models of public safety that will not improve the lives of the city’s most policed. 

The NPD has an agenda: continue to ask for and receive increasing amounts of money from the city budget year after year, and provide only its own largely irrelevant measures of success on the rare occasions it is asked to be accountable to the public. Over the last decade, and certainly before that, the Mayor and City Council have been happy to acquiesce to that agenda. 

The Policing Review Commission is a rare opportunity to change that course of action from within. Understanding the history of the commission in US politics, it’s hard to be optimistic that the Northampton PRC will lead to substantive change. The public can be certain, however, that our current trajectory will not change so long as commissioners avoid staking out positions and advocating them. 

Any recommendations short of abolition will face criticism from the left, but any report without recommendations will be steamrolled by the momentum of 500 years of colonialism, anti-black racism, and capitalism, the historical drivers of modern policing. Brattleboro, Vermont, has just released a report containing many of the same ideas as Northampton’s, but is different in two key ways that, if any commission is likely to be effective, will make the difference: thorough input from the most policed individuals in the town, and strong recommendations (with timelines) towards voluntary, rather than coercive, services. Likewise, a group calling itself Northampton Abolition Now has released a set of specific demands: reallocate the funds cut from the police budget last year, create a new city department of community care, and reduce the police budget by 50% in 2021 while reallocating these funds to institutions that are truly accountable to those most policed in Northampton. Their new website asks community members and organizations to sign on, and includes ten pointed appendices which go into a level of detail rivaling that of the PRC report itself. 

The Northampton PRC has about two months now to issue its follow-up. Hopefully, commissioners will use that time to ask themselves difficult questions, stake out ambitious ground, and prepare to defend it—if they do, they will certainly have many members of the public on their side.


Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo by Ernest Berenger.

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