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Northampton Policing Commission Releases Report

The City must ask: What will the upcoming budget include, and what does that say about what Northampton prioritizes? 

By Luis Fieldman

The Northampton Policing Review Commission (NPRC) made sweeping recommendations about the kinds of emergencies and 911-related calls that police officers should respond to in its final report, “Reimagining Safety,” published last week. A large portion of calls made to the police could be better responded to by crisis intervention workers trained in de-escalation and harm reduction, authors of the report wrote. 

Most notable among the recommendations in the report is for the creation of a Department of Community Care, described as a city-funded agency staffed by crisis intervention workers, medics, and those with “lived-experiences.” These city employees could help people navigate the social services and agencies that already exist while providing residents an alternative response team for various kinds of emergencies. 

The commission urges city leaders to immediately establish and fund the agency in the upcoming city budget, starting by using any available funds cut from the police budget last year. The report states the agency could start out small, and eventually work its way to becoming a 24/7 network of peer-responders accountable to those it serves, ideally by the year 2023. 

The power to create a new department falls on the executive branch of Northampton’s municipal government, meaning it would be up to Mayor David Narkewicz to build the budget for the upcoming fiscal year to include founding the Department of Community Care, according to commissioners and city councilors at a joint meeting with the mayor on Tuesday, March 30th. The meeting provided councilors and the mayor the opportunity to ask questions of the NPRC members on how they came about their conclusions and recommendations. 

At the meeting, the mayor offered mild optimism in regards to the potential of the new department being established later this year.  

“You’ve said you want this department to be ready to go by FY2023,” Narkewicz said. “That we should be spending the next year creating this department and then have it really be ready for FY2023. Which I am somewhat grateful to hear because I don’t know that you can create a department in 45 days for July 1. That would defy all municipal and every other law of gravity.” 

Police Chief Jody Kasper did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings and recommendations. 

“Reimagining Safety,” a 58-page report published recently, marks the culmination of over 60 virtual meetings, over 50 hours of public comment and hundreds of hours of deliberation by the twelve members of the commission, all appointed by either Mayor David Narkewicz or City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra last year. The NPRC first officially met in September 2020. 

Last summer, thousands descended upon the Northampton Police Department demanding city leaders defund the police and enact major changes to public safety in the city. Those demands came after the brutal murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, and other recent tragic, high-profile murders by police, including those of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner. Those demands led to the Northampton City Council voting to reduce the police budget by ten percent –– approximately $882,602 –– and the creation of the NPRC. 

According to the report, the NPRC viewed their mandate as investigating the police department’s size, structure, services, and budget; examining alternatives to current policing policies and practices; and researching the possibility of transitioning 911 calls made for mental health, houselessness, substance abuse disorder, non-criminal or domestic violence reasons to trained civilian responders in Northampton.

Underpinning the commission’s findings, the report states, “is the understanding that while other social services and infrastructure have been underfunded, police departments have become the default solution for many societal ills. Compounding the police department’s obligation to respond is the fact that they are in many cases one of the few 24/7 services available in a community.” 

According to a working paper, “Disaggregating the Police Function,” by New York University law professor Barry Friedman, “Crimefighting actually is a very small part of what police do every day, and their actual work requires an entirely different range of skills, among them: mediation skills to address conflict, social work skills to get people the long-term solutions they need, interviewing and investigative skills to really solve crimes, and victim-assistance. Yet, police are barely trained in any of this, so, it is no surprise harm is the result.” 

The NPRC’s recommendations echo that sentiment in various passages in the report. 

“Properly staffed and funded, peer-responders would be able to handle calls to which the appearance of an armed officer may escalate the situation, or where a social intervention may reduce the dependence on carceral responses or hospitalization,” the report states. “Shifting these responsibilities away from police also allows them to focus on their core responsibilities around law enforcement.”

Per the report, other immediate actions the city should take: wellness checks and suspicious persons calls should be made by a civilian peer-responder or co-responder; the police department’s complaint process should be done by an outside agency, not overseen by the police chief; and that “an independent organization be brought in to do a formal needs assessment to review all city infrastructure as it relates to public safety.”

Northampton Abolition Now (NAN), a local group advocating for a radical reimagining of public safety in the city, wrote in a public statement that it commended many aspects of the report for its inclusion of “aims to reduce the size, scope, and power of policing and for advocating for alternatives to policing in Northampton.”

Among demands by NAN are: the immediate reallocation of the full $882,602 cut from the NPD budget in June 2020 by the city council, establishing the Department of Community Care, and defunding the NPD budget by 50 percent in the next fiscal year starting July 1. 

A new agency

The NPRC offers a vision of what public safety could look like in Northampton through the creation of a Department of Community Care. New types of responders, intervention models and programs could be provided by this agency, which would exist to ensure that there are alternatives for responses to 911 calls available to all people in the city. 

“The Commission has used the guiding principle of ensuring the ‘right response to a call’ is available for all people,” commissioners wrote. “To do this, we have attempted to reimagine public safety responses based on the needs of individual callers including and outside the existing options for delivery and service.”

The newly created agency would be dedicated to providing emergency services in Northampton with a peer-response model that focuses on mental health and substance-abuse crises, according to the report. The new department should be separate from the police department, yet be able to collaborate with all city departments, according to the report. The NPRC advocates for the new agency to be “situated underneath” the Board of Health. 

To underscore the department’s high priority, the NPRC wrote the agency should be established and funded in the upcoming budget cycle, even if it means starting out small. The city’s budget for fiscal 2022 begins on July 1, 2021, and the mayor and city council will finalize it in the coming months. Ultimately, commissioners wrote, the department should be available for the community with 24/7 staffing to support responses, and scaled up to provide services and support in various areas. 

“As the department grows, it can respond to police functions, including civilian flaggers and detail employees, minor traffic violation enforcement, community education, general presence and patrols, inspections, animal control, and others that do not require the presence of an armed individual,” according to the report. 

Along with a staff of civilian peer-responders trained in de-escalation and harm-reduction, the commission recommends having a staff member dedicated to assisting people navigate the various clinics and services already available. 

A common theme commissioners heard from the public is the need for a coordinator that can facilitate communication between the various social agencies that exist in the city already. There is no one person who is available to help people through the various support services in Northampton. As The Shoestring recently reported, ServiceNet — a major provider of these services — is severely understaffed. According to information we reviewed, the downtown Resource Center has one remaining caseworker –– who was scheduled to retire earlier this year –– is continuing with existing clients but not taking new ones. 

At the joint meeting on March 30, NPRC Co-chair Daniel Cannity elaborated on the idea: “services can be really difficult to navigate and even more so when you’re already in a crisis and you are already experiencing problems. I don’t want to say it’s impossible, because people do it, but it’s very difficult. And it’s even difficult to stay on top of who is doing what where. The city needs a nexus and somewhere to house that nexus point.” 

A co-owner of the downton Northampton restaurant Belly of the Beast backed the creation of a new city department in a public statement. 

“The NPRC’s support for the Department of Community Care (DCC) is a vital step,” said Jesse Hassinger, co-owner of Belly of the Beast. “The DCC will make it possible for folks who have been most harmed by policing to lead community safety programs that positively affect the entire Northampton area. The DCC also has incredible potential to help heal people during times of trauma, and to overall foster a culture of antiracism, inclusion, and representation that we have not seen in Northampton before.” 

The commission stated it drew inspiration from the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, which has served the city for more than 30 years. It’s staff is made up of outreach workers and medics trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation, and it is operated by a community health clinic and funded by the city’s police department. CAHOOTS estimates that the program diverts nearly 17 percent of all 911 calls. CAHOOTS accounts for just two percent of the police department’s $66 million annual budget. 

Narkewicz pointed out the “complexities of trying to create a department” and asked commissioners at the joint NPRC-city council meeting whether they had considered instead for the city to contract out peer-response services rather than create a new agency within the city’s infrastructure. 

“We don’t currently have the infrastructure or the bandwidth to run an agency like this within city government,” Narkewicz said. He asked commissioners why they chose to recommend a stand alone department within the city instead of contracting out services to an independent program “created by professionals and people who have co-responder training, who could put this together.” The mayor noted that CAHOOTS is funded through the police, but that it is overseen by an independent community health clinic. 

Commissioners stood by their recommendation for a new department by stating that creating an agency under the purview of the city would create financial stability for the institution, it would create greater fluidity with other emergency services, and it would be on an equal status to the city’s EMS, fire and police departments. 

Commissioner Elizabeth Barajas-Roman said that, “it is important to have the department within the city,” at the March 30 joint meeting.  

“With a department that sits within the city of Northampton there is a feedback loop that is automatically there,” she continued. “It is not just that they are off providing services, it’s about [having] a department head, who is having department meetings, with the mayor and other folks. Who is sitting as an equal, as a peer, amongst other city department heads … They are sitting in a place that is very different than, ‘Here’s a contract, go do this thing we are contacting you to do.’“

In a written statement to The Shoestring, City Council President and mayoral candidate Gina-Louise Sciarra described how she views the next steps for the city council and mayor: 

“I greatly appreciate the intense work that went into producing the Northampton Policing Review Commission report and am grateful that they were able to submit it by the deadline, which was established to allow time for consideration in the FY22 budget,” she wrote. “As was discussed at the presentation yesterday, the recommendations largely fall under the executive branch to implement … The commission did not prescribe how to implement their recommendations, and expressed that commission members had different perspectives on what the next steps should be. It is now up to the mayor to review the recommendations and decide what to incorporate into the budget. The budget will then be submitted to the council in mid-May, we will hold budget hearings, deliberate and vote on it.”

In drafting its report, the members of the NPRC researched actions and programs that other communities across the U.S. are taking around public safety. 

In Brattleboro, a needs assessment on community safety found that the community lacks effective responses to mental health emergencies and that police intervention typically escalates situations. 

In Ithaca, New York, Mayor Svante Myrick’s proposal of replacing the city’s 63-officer, $12.5 million police department with a new public safety department, where all current officers would have to re-apply for a position within the new department, is currently under review. 

In Austin, Texas, the city council reallocated $21 million from its $434 million police budget in order to address substance use, gun violence, houselessness, funding a family violence shelter, mental health emergency responders and ambulances. The city also moved the internal affairs function out of the police department and made it independent within the city, a move designed to bring more transparency over investigations and complaints against officers to the public. 

Diverting 911 calls away from NPD

The Northampton Emergency Dispatch Center, a 24/7 service which handles all emergency communications through 911, currently handles an average of 55,803 yearly interactions that encompass calls and texts, according to “Reimagining Safety.” Commissioners argue that many of the types of calls the city’s dispatch receives do not warrant a response by a police officer. 

Calls for wellness checks and suspicious persons were identified as specific instances when a civilian response could be more beneficial, especially during hours of high call volume. Checking on the well-being of community members does not require a police officer’s response, the commissioners argue. Likewise, absent indications that a suspicious person is armed or dangerous, commissioners advocate for a civilian response because “we feel that many such calls can be rooted in racial stereotypes.” 

Commissioners promoted non-coercive responses for residents experiencing extreme emotional states as essential in order to improve public safety. Commissioner Javier Luengo-Garrido said in an interview with The Shoestring that the Department of Community Care has “to be really intentional about not being coercive at every step of the way.”

Tim Black, programs director for CAHOOTS, spoke to the commission virtually, and Luengo-Garrido said, “people [in Eugene], when they are going to call for help, people know if they call the police what they get, and with CAHOOTS what they get … They know tangible evidence of what happens when CAHOOTS shows up. Importantly, at the end of the day, people trust who shows up from their community.” 

Not only has CAHOOTS found success in de-escalating emergencies, responders rarely get injured on the job. 

The report points to the success of CAHOOTS in dealing with emergencies without harm caused towards responders. During its three decades in operation, no CAHOOTS worker has experienced serious injuries, commissioners wrote. In 2019, the program reported that they had responded to 18,000 calls, with only 311 that required police back-up. 

Police responses to mental health calls can often lead to violence, the commissioners wrote. “An important statistic to bear in mind while reading this commission report is that people labeled with mental illness account for approximately 25 % of all fatal shootings by police. This statistic has held steady between 2015 and 2018, as approximately 1000 people were killed during police officer-led community responses.”  

A testimonial included in the NPRC report describes a time when Northampton police escalated a situation: 

“I lived in Northampton with my partner. I came home from my work and my partner was intoxicated. They fell down a flight of stairs in our apartment and we thought that they had broken their foot. So I called 911 … and I requested an ambulance. Unbeknownst to me at the time when an ambulance arrives a police officer also does. This police officer arrived way before the ambulance did. It was actually a narcotics detective … he got agitated and one thing led to another, and eventually pepper spray was deployed, and my partner was taken away in handcuffs and did not receive the medical treatment that I requested. To this day, I think about that incident and how differently it could have gone if a police officer was not there.” 

The report included a breakdown of the types of calls the NPD received in 2019: 6.7% violent crime, 21.6% traffic, 25.3% non-criminal, 28.2% non-violent crime, 1.7 % misc., 7.9% medical, 8.6% animal. 

The report dedicated a section for the responses police should continue to handle, including violent felonies against people, felony property crimes, major public disturbances such as riots, illegal drug sales or distribution, active shooter situations, reports of illegal possession of firearms, major automobile offenses, and the investigation of serious crimes. 

NAN, although supportive of much of the report, stated its opposition to certain aspects involving suggestions for a strategic plan for the NPD, altering the complaint process for police, and any involvement of police during peer or co-responder situations, according to a public statement. 

“Studies have shown time and time again that reforms and complaint processes are unable to alter what is a fundamentally broken system,” a statement from NAN says. 

NPRC member Josey Rosales, expressed their concern as well: “The NPD will not advocate for a reduction of its own power; instead we believe that the NPD will leverage the strategic plan for their own benefit, not for the good of our community.”

During the Northampton City Council meeting on April 1st, Ashwin Ravikumar, a member of NAN, commended the NPRC for creating a “wonderful foundation for building the capacity outside the police to address issues and needs.” Yet he disagreed with spending additional city funds on police training and on a more robust complaint process. 

“As a person of color myself,” he said, “if I am going through crisis, I don’t want to call a cop that has been through an anti-racism training and I don’t want to call a cop secure in the knowledge that if he does something racist to me, I’ll be able to complain about it more effectively later. I want to call someone who is not a cop at all.”

Ravikumar and NAN advocate for all paths that lead toward reducing police responses and producing alternatives for emergency services. 

Asked to clarify the suggestion for a peer responder and co-responder model in the report –– and whether that would include police –– Luengo-Garrido said, “as far as I am concerned, the model we are proposing is for responses that do not include police.” 

For example, mental health trained professionals could be joined by a peer-trained person or EMT under the new model, according to Luengo-Garrido. 

Budget that reflects community values 

Last year, when the city council cut the police department budget by 10 percent, the funds were transferred to a rainy-day fund, called the Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund. In January, the mayor presented the city council with a report on the trends and projections for the fiscal year 2022 budget process. In it, he describes how that police budget cut meant he would not have to dip into the rainy-day fund as much as he had anticipated. 

“Reductions made by the City Council to the Northampton Police Department budget amounting to $882,602 which included cuts in personnel (5.00 FTE), operating supplies and funds for all vehicle replacements,” the mayor wrote. “These cuts reduced the original amount of one-time money proposed to be taken from the Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund ($935,020) to support the operating budget.”

So far in fiscal 2021, which ends this upcoming June, the mayor used approximately $411,367 of Fiscal Stability Stabilization Funds to cover shortfalls in the operating budget, according to the financial report.

The mayor has not stated publicly yet whether or not he will include the Department of Community Care in the upcoming budget. The mayor didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

NAN consistently demands that the full NPD budget cut from last year be immediately reallocated “to meet the urgent need of community members in FY2021,” and for the establishment of a Department of Community Care. 

The NPRC in its report, arrives at the same conclusion: “Our interpretation of the budget cut by the City Council is that it was made in the spirit of reinvestment in our community. To continue this, we recommend the Department of Community Care be established by reinvesting the funds cut from the NPD in 2020 at a minimum.”

The report continues, “Funding allocations could also come from revenue generated by current police practices including detail work. This money could be allocated specifically towards alternatives to policing, community care, and programs and services which are proven to reduce crime.” 

During the joint meeting on March 30, NPRC commissioner Luengo-Garrido said the “budget has to be a reflection of who we want to be as a community. The mayor plays a central role and also the city council in the approval process.” 

How the city funds a new department is a complicated matter. Just last year, a proposition 2 ½ tax override –– which was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic –– passed by a majority vote in Northampton, meaning the city will generate $2.5 million in property taxes to pay for education shortfalls and to prevent layoffs to city employees. The city voted for a tax override in 2013, which helped save more than 20 jobs and filled a roughly $1.4 million gap in the 2014 fiscal year budget, according to a MassLive article. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all kinds of chaos, and dealt financial blows that the city is still contending with. In the mayor’s financial report, he detailed steps the city took in response to the pandemic: eliminating the spending of $365,000 for capital projects; canceling $400,000 in contributions to the city’s reserves for future capital projects; eliminating the equivalent of 17.25 full-time positions across various departments; and funding increases in staffing at the health department to deal with the pandemic. 

Still, there are dozens of communities and cities across the country finding creative ways to flow funding and resources into new programs aimed at re-envisioning public safety. Many municipalities have taken drastic steps since last summer, and Northampton is in many ways behind in terms of municipalities that already have programs that divert responsibilities away from police departments. 

The question remains, what will the upcoming budget include, and what does that say about what Northampton prioritizes?

Police Chief Kapser herself, during NPRC public meetings, voiced a desire among police officers who would welcome the chance to not respond to certain types of calls and to divert calls to another agency more trained and experienced in dealing with mediation, harm reduction, and mental health emergencies. 

At the end of the day, it’s up to the mayor to implement many of these recommendations and for the city council to approve them. 

“In terms of recommendations, we intentionally tried to stop at the level of implementation,”  Barajas-Roman said at the March 30 meeting. “The implementation involves so much of inner working of the city, which we are not privy to. It’s really an executive level decision … Where does our charge start and stop, and where does the handoff begin? We didn’t delve deeper into how you implement these recommendations because –– we were thoughtful about them, we hypothesized around them –– but really trying to say that is really the role of the executive level function of the city to figure out how.”

Luis Fieldman is a journalist living in Northampton. Photo by the author.

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