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OP-ED: Whose voices will the Northampton Policing Review Commission uplift? The next few weeks will be critical in answering this question

By Northampton Abolition Now

The Group Northampton Abolition Now (NAN) sprang out of last summer’s uprising in defense of Black lives, calling for defunding the police and investing in communities. According to the group, “Northampton Abolition Now organizes to move money from the police department into programs that make our community truly safe and help all of us to thrive. Policing is rooted in anti-Black racism, and we believe that we can and must build a world without police and prisons. We are working to grow and support community-led initiatives that are accountable to those who are most harmed by policing. We welcome the support of anyone who wants to help us imagine and create a Northampton community grounded in justice and accountability that meets the needs of all people.” The Shoestring is pleased to partner with NAN on publishing a column, where the group will provide commentary and insight on an abolitionist perspective within Northampton. (For an expanded blog post with more quotes from the Commissioners, see NAN’s website.)

The Northampton Policing Review Commission was created by the Mayor as a  direct reaction to the protests in Northampton last summer. As students of the history of racism and of social movements, we regard volunteer municipal commissions formed to study policing with suspicion.There is a longstanding pattern of governments launching commissions to investigate hot-button issues as a way to placate activists without  taking meaningful action. With this analysis of the limitations of investigative commissions to effect real change in mind, we still believe the Northampton Policing Review Commission has an opportunity and an obligation to articulate a bold set of action steps that would defund the police and invest in real community safety. 

The Policing Review Commissioners are now more than half way through their process submitting recommendations to the Mayor and City Council. As described  in The Shoestring’s reporting, the four committees are Spending and Contracts, Policies and Practices, Alternatives to Policing, and the newly formed Outreach Subcommittee. 

In many instances, the Policing Review Commissioner’s willingness to imagine new systems of public safety, meticulous care in data analysis, and willingness to listen to the community have been refreshing and very encouraging. In other moments, some of the Commissioners have disregarded evidence presented by the community, continually pursuing changes to police training programs and the complaint process –  apparently choosing to ignore the rigorous empirical consensus that these kinds of reforms are useless. Some of these commissioners instead have prioritized giving precious commission time to hearing the views of the Police Department. 

 The commissioners recently submitted their preliminary report to the City Council. Despite some of the concerning dynamics we have described, the report was by and large an excellent, evidence based document covering the research and thinking of the commissioners so far. The contributions of Carol Owen to the Alternatives to Policing subcommittee’s section and Booker Bush’s section titled “Why is the Police Review Commission Here” deserve particular praise. 

Although the preliminary report’s final version of the Mental Health Alternatives section recommended excellent community-based, peer-led mental health approaches, we would be remiss to not mention one alarming paragraph that made a brief appearance in the draft before being deleted at the request of advocates and Javier Luengo-Garrido, who is a member of the Alternatives subcommittee. The thankfully deleted paragraph recommended expanding the crisis services at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) and ServiceNet, which are not peer-led, are in no way accountable to the people they intend to serve, and are deeply entwined with the carceral system

Additionally, we at NAN have heard testimonies from people in Northampton who have felt disempowered and traumatized from incidents where someone else called the CSO crisis hotline on them. We have even heard stories of folks who called the CSO crisis hotline and then later discovered that CSO did not respond to the call but instead called the police. A mental health service that directs calls to the cops, or uses coercive interventions, is not an alternative to policing. The inclusion of this paragraph also alarmed NAN because the Alternatives subcommittee had not meaningfully discussed either of these organizations. It was revealed later that the paragraph had been written by a Commissioner from another subcommittee who had been employed by one of these organizations. We are pleased with the subcommittee’s final choice to consistently prioritize the perspectives of survivors of psychiatric and carceral systems over the perspectives of staff and management of service providers who are unaccountable to their clients and often, unfortunately, criminalize and coerce the people they’re supposed to serve.

Although some Commissioners have looked largely to the police chief, police website, or the staff of non-profits for information on policing, the Alternatives committee and other individual commissioners consistently called for prioritizing hearing the voices of those who have been most impacted by policing. We especially commend commissioners Javier Luengo-Garrido, Josey Rosales, Booker Bush, Carol Owen, and Dan Cannity for their consistent efforts to prioritize centering these voices. Thanks to the effort of a number of commissioners, the Outreach Subcommittee was created as a fourth subcommittee to gather testimony from those impacted by policing. The work of the Outreach Committee has been an important and promising step. The subcommittee’s process has been thoughtful and they have taken care to reach out to the community throughout their process, not just as the culmination of their process.

We hope that the Policing Practices and Services Subcommittee, which has so far relied heavily on the NPD website and information provided by Chief Kasper to understand the practices of the police, will actively participate in the Commission’s outreach process to learn from the community about the impacts of policing. As several Commissioners on that subcommittee have noted, but not acted upon, policies can only describe how police should act; but only those impacted by policing can describe how they actually act, which is what matters.

For an expanded blog post with more quotes from the Commissioners, see NAN’s website.

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