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One Year Later, Community Still Demands Alternatives to Policing at Budget Hearings

Northampton City Council heard (or didn’t) department heads and the public in two special meetings

By Brian Zayatz

On Tuesday, May 25th—the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police—and Wednesday, May 26th, Northampton City Council held its annual budget hearings, spread out over two days to give ample time for public comment after last year’s hearings were attended by hundreds calling to defund the police and reallocate resources to non-punitive services. Also on Tuesday, the activist group Northampton Abolition Now held a concurrent rally in support of this goal, where attendants commemorated Floyd’s life through speeches and art. A mural of Floyd, featuring the names of other lives lost to police killings in the year since his death, was pasted onto the doors of City Hall, which city workers removed within twenty-four hours. Northampton Abolition Now (NAN) also joined the public hearing via Zoom, allowing those attending the rally in person to still testify in the hearing. Many of the speakers who testified via this platform had never given comment to City Council before.

On both days of virtual hearings, Councilors first heard presentations from department heads and had opportunities to ask questions of each of them. The floor was then opened to the public, who testified for several hours each night. The overwhelming majority of speakers on both days called for defunding the police and more funding for the Department of Community Care. Since many speakers responded to the presentations and discussion preceding public comment, a selection of their comments are featured at the end of this article.

City Council will take a first reading of the budget in a virtual meeting on Thursday, June 3rd. There, they can either pass it until its next reading two weeks later, reject it, or reject or reduce certain line items. They cannot add funding, as only the Mayor can do that per the city charter. If the Council does not pass a budget by the end of June, the Mayor’s budget goes into effect automatically.

Department presentations

Health Department: Director Merridith O’Leary

Director O’Leary began her presentation with some figures from the last year, during which time the department’s work was dominated by the pandemic. The department investigated over 2,500 of a roughly 3,000 Covid complaints received, and administered over 30,000 vaccines. The department also received $2.5 million in grants during the year. While some departments are adding back positions that were cut in last year’s budget crunch, the health department is adding new positions altogether: one making permanent the second public health nurse which was hired during the year with grant funding, and the other, an assistant for Director O’Leary. The federal Department of Health and Human Services recommends cities have .09 full-time-equivalent public health nurses per 1200 residents, which for a city of 29,000 would add up to well over two (O’Leary called two “bare bones”). The department is also funding a Prevention Coalition Coordinator, a position which has been grant funded for the last ten years, during which time the city saw significant decreases in youth use of alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco.

During discussion, all Councilors who spoke thanked Director O’Leary for her service over the last year. Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) asked Director O’Leary if she had baseline data about trends in youth substance use to better evaluate effectiveness of the Prevention Coalition, but O’Leary said she did not have such data. She also explained to Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) the city’s mosquito prevention expenses, which include paying dues into the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District, and treatment of some waterways with larvicide briquettes, which she said are non-toxic to other organisms. Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) also asked about education for the new regulations for disposable plastics that are taking effect in the coming year, which Director O’Leary said will be the responsibility of the Mayor’s designee. O’Leary said the new regulations represent merely another item on the checklist used for business inspections, but that the change will also affect a number of businesses they don’t regularly inspect.

Northampton Public Schools: Superintendent John Provost

Superintendent Provost began his presentation by reassuring the Council that Northampton’s schools are in a much better position than this time last year. They have moved to fully in-person instruction, and have yet to see a single case of school-based Covid-transmission. During the shutdown, the school continued to provide 280,000 school meals. The largest gaps in achievement during the interrupted year were for the youngest students and Latinx students, which Provost proposed to address through increased academic, social, and emotional supports, taking advantage of state and federal grants available for addressing these issues. He also thanked Mayor Narkewicz, who “never asked us for a cut or a level funded budget” in his ten years as mayor.

During discussion, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) asked for more information about how the schools would address these disparities. Provost replied that the middle school created the position of “culture coach” to act as another step where counseling could occur before students get sent to the principal for discipline. NPS is also working on phasing out in-school suspension, also with hopes of offering counseling services to these students. Provost concluded, though, that “the strongest intervention is opening school.”

Councilor Nash asked about the restorative justice processes outlined in the schools’ recently updated code of conduct. The new policy is something for teachers to practice in classrooms with students, rather than a “formal room that you go to,” as Councilor Nash put it. Provost explained that teachers have spent one half-day per month in the last year training on the new code of conduct, and used the example of masks to illustrate the new policies. In all but one case, said Provost, what got students to change their attitudes towards masking was relationships with teachers or administrators that got them to see their stake in the community.

Councilor Nash also asked about switching the fields to organic management, which Provost replied they are working on, but can’t do too quickly without risking the field’s overall health.

Northampton Fire and Rescue: Chief Jon Davine

Chief Davine, who ascended to his current position just over a year ago, gave a brief update of the work of his department over the year, which, in addition to normal responsibilities, also included ordering and distributing PPE for city departments, decontamination spraying of municipal buildings, and administering the Covid vaccine.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) opened discussion by saying that it “really meant a lot” to her hearing that EMTs chose to administer the vaccine on their own time and were not paid, to which Mayor Narkewicz, who had apparently forgotten to mute himself, replied with an incredulous “what?!”. The subject was not discussed further.

In response to questions from Councilors Jarrett and Michael Quinlan (Ward 1), Davine discussed some of the difficulties in hiring the department is currently facing, having received only ten applicants for three open positions. Councilor Jarrett said he had heard of the poor conditions experienced by EMTs at private companies serving cities like Springfield and hoped they knew about Northampton’s open positions. Davine explained that in Northampton, department employees are expected to go to both fires and medical emergencies. Though the latter is far more common, with only thirteen employees working at a time, a fire usually means all hands on deck. In his experience, many people who love EMT work don’t want to do fires. When pressed by Councilor Jarrett about greater diversity in hiring, Davine reiterated the low turnout for applicants and stressed that the department was trying.

Central Services: Director David Pomerantz

The Central Services department is a centralized department that offers custodial, maintenance, and groundskeeping work on city properties, as well as in-house building and renovation projects. It is also, as Councilor Dwight pointed out, in charge of implementing the city’s climate goals. To this end, Director David Pomerantz noted that the department finished up a seven-building assessment in order to make recommendations for capital improvement to bring the city closer to carbon neutrality by 2050. The department has maintained the senior center as a vaccination facility and will be in charge of returning the building to its former state when seniors are able to return. Councilor Nash again asked about moving towards organic management of the NHS fields, which Central Services manage, and received the same response.

Department of Public Works: Director Donna LaScaleia

DPW Director Donna LaScaleia introduced her departments funding ask with some numbers her department’s responsibilities, including the overseeing and maintenance of 150 miles of paved and unpaved roadway with 650,000 linear feet of lane lines, 85 miles of sidewalk, 38 bridges, 150 vehicles and specialized equipment, 10,000 public shade trees, and four public cemeteries with over 20,000 monuments. The higher than usual increase in the DPW budget this year are due in large part to the restoring of two full-time employees in the Forestry, Parks, and Cemeteries division, bringing the department back to FY20 staffing levels, and an increase in the amount dedicated to asphalt purchasing, which more accurately reflects the price of the material. LaScaleia also noted that the enterprise funds have been level funded, and the solid waste budget has actually been reduced by 15% due to greater operating efficiency, meaning that utility rates for homeowners will stay the same in the coming year (she later noted that while this is no small feat, her department has revenue projections twenty years out, and the decision to keep rates flat was made with long term sustainability in mind).

Councilors asked many questions of Director LaScaleia, whose presentation opened the second day of hearings. During discussion, LaScaleia revealed that upwards of twenty department employees, who cannot work remotely, got Covid, and the department often had to scramble to work around sick or exposed employees to continue to provide 24-hour service. In response to a question from Councilor Maiore, LaScaleia also gave an update on security at the transfer station, which had been subject of discussion during last year’s hearings. She reported that visitors have been much less aggressive in response to enforcement of mask and social distancing requirements, but that an officer is still on site on Saturdays to direct traffic.

Councilor Quinlan asked about the process for planning future road work, to which Director LaScaleia responded that an outside consultant surveys the roads every four years, and that a map of the city with every road’s construction needs can be found on the department’s website. Plans for future projects typically get started in the late fall, as road work season draws to a close. The city plans to work on several small side streets this year, including Winter Street, which has had two catastrophic water main breaks.

Councilor Dwight asked Director LaScaleia if she anticipated greater personnel needs now that the city was removing more Covid-restrictions, to which she responded that that may be the case, but her strategy has always been to see what the department can do with the staff it has, rather than immediately asking for more (in stark contrast to the evening’s other presenter).

Councilor Nash again asked about the city’s athletic fields, which Director LaScaleia confirmed are managed organically. She noted this is an example of the work her department takes on, as organic management is far more work than conventional. The department has four full-time employees that maintain the city’s public fields.

Northampton Police Department: Chief Jody Kasper

Chief Kasper gave a brief explanation of her department’s proposed budget, followed by a lengthy appeal for more funding for the NPD, which would apparently be in dire straits if the Mayor’s proposal, the largest in the department’s history, goes through. The budget itself changed little from the previous year: the 3% increase in total spending is mostly step raises for officers, and also a slight increase in hours for the animal control officer. Chief Kasper also moved $15,000 from training and $10,000 from court overtime to “special officers” (essentially, rent-a-cops for large events like protests).

Kasper looked back at last year’s 10% funding cut, which zeroed the vehicle budget for replacing the department’s “aging” fleet, and led to a “decline in morale.” Within weeks of the cut, eleven officers, or 27% of the force, had applied for jobs elsewhere. Kasper estimated that the dollar amount of investments in training that left the department last year was in the range of $400,000. She also noted the decrease in applications for positions at the department, which numbered 42 for the first half of 2020 and for the second half dropped to twenty (these figures were not compared to any baseline across other departments). The department now has 60 officer positions, currently only 49 of which are available to work (in a given month, Kasper said, seven officers are typically unavailable due to family leave or injuries).

“We are at a breaking point,” Kasper continued, arguing that the department was not oversized before last year’s cuts, referring to the department’s current work as “scraping by” and “one-dimensional policing.” She told the Councilors that they have had to reduce minimum staffing levels during non-peak activity hours, which she said has only worked because so many businesses are closed. She then described in detail a nightmarish scenario in which two accidents take place on opposite sides of the city at the same time as an overdose, and doubted her department’s ability to respond to such events in crucial minutes (she did not seem concerned that all of these scenarios are ones that activists and the NPRC have suggested removing from her department’s responsibility, nor did she mention whether a scenario like this has ever happened). “Policing is in the midst of a reform movement,” concluded Kasper, adding that the “process does not have to be adversarial.”

During discussion, Councilors Nash, Dwight, Labarge, and Quinlan all said they planned to support the NPD’s budget. Councilor Dwight offered one of his signature monologues, listing all of the “progressive” stances he’s seen the department take over the last forty years, including recommending the removal of loitering laws and turning down Desert Storm military gear from the federal government. “The trick comes, of course, with the fact that police are unique, period,” said Dwight. “It is the only job in this country that allows the appointed person to arrest and detain, and to have the means to kill.” His response to this fact, was a vague call to “reimagine” policing, the responsibility for which is “on us” (it was not clear if he meant City Council or the general public. Councilor Dwight voted in favor of establishing the Policing Review Commission last year and voted to endorse its findings at the most recent regular City Council meeting). He said he was “not especially proud” of last year’s 10% cut, that he appreciated the work of the NPD to address systemic racism, and that they were working on it “a whole lot harder than most people who are being critical.” He declined to ask any questions, and said he’d been waiting to say something like that to Chief Kasper for a long time.

Councilor Maiore respectfully disagreed with Councilor Dwight, saying the funding cut was carefully considered and that every department took a cut except Health and Fire. She pointed out that most police work is difficult to back up with data, and asked for evidence that having more officers kept the community safe. Kasper offered that the best evidence was “the calls we can’t go on,” adding that the last weekends have been busy and they’ve been trying to go on every call.

Councilor Jarrett added that over the last few decades police have been charged with more and more responsibilities and he didn’t want the NPD to see calls for change as a personal attack, but merely an attempt to have “the greatest amount of safety for everyone.” He asked for data on regular turnover rates, which Kasper said she did not have but could get for him. He also asked what kind of timeline would be helpful for NPD to plan retirements to coincide with cuts so junior officers weren’t always cut. Kasper responded by arguing strongly against cuts, even if the Department of Community Care took on some of the NPD’s current responsibilities, adding that a 50% reduction in calls shouldn’t correspond to a proportionate cut (no councilors asked if there were any imaginable circumstances in which Chief Kasper would ever consider cuts to the NPD budget to be warranted). Kasper eventually answered that knowing cuts were coming a few years out would be helpful.

Public comment

In total, 48 individuals spoke to concerns about overfunding the police department or underfunding the Department of Community Care. Some individuals spoke more than once to add new information to the discussion. Several also spoke in favor of the police. Like last year, many people spoke of bad experiences with the NPD specifically. The following is a summary of some of the comments:

  • Attorney Dana Goldblatt of Northampton spoke on the first night of concern about the seemingly perpetual cycle of studies and lack of funding for the Department of Community Care. Like many others, she pointed out that the NPRC studied the issue for the better part of a year, and yet the DOCC is only funded for more exploration. “The need for a Community Care Department is being buried under studying studies of studies,” she said, adding that it sounded like BS excuses for inaction.
  • Dory Graham, of Ward 3, said explanations of why the city can’t have unarmed responders are no longer working. Graham told a story of calling the police out of desperation after overhearing a domestic dispute. Six officers responded (according to Kasper’s testimony the following day, this is usually the total number of officers working at a given time), none of them thinking to separate the aggressor from the person being attacked. The officers left the two people in the same circumstances. Graham, a NPS employee, added that more money should go to the schools so they don’t have to ask parents to send in paper towels with their kids for the classroom.
  • Calvin Brower, calling live from the George Floyd memorial rally, said Officer Andrew Kohl asked Brower to show him a bag of marijuana, which Kohl said smelled like “good shit.” Kohl then confiscated marijuana, despite it already having been legalized. When Brower pointed this out and asked Kohl to call the sergeant, the sergeant confirmed that Kohl should confiscate.
  • Donovan Lee, an Easthampton resident and experienced EMT who works in Northampton, reported hearing police tell people they could either go to the hospital or go to jail. “I think our community deserves more than those two options when they’re facing an emergency,” Lee said.
  • G, of Montague, calling from the rally, called the unpaid work of BIPOC commissioners a distraction from white supremacist democracy. She also told of her experience with the NPD deploying pepper spray at one of last year’s George Floyd rallies, which she said was the scariest day of her life. She reported staying with someone for an hour while he recovered and fearing that he might be permanently blinded.
  • Sasha Dunbar of Ward 5, also calling from the rally, said they moved to Northampton with hopes of becoming a social worker as someone who has experienced institutionalization and incarceration. Dunbar identifies as Black and biracial and grew up in a diverse and overpoliced community. On living in Northampton, Dunbar said that “to see a sea of white faces and Black Lives Matter signs and so few people of color and so many police cars, that’s a sign to me that there are too many cops and too much money.” Dunbar concluded that they want to live in the city for a long time, that they are excited by the prospect of the Department of Community Care, but devastated by the idea of more police funding.
  • Jose Adastra of Northampton said diversity is not a real answer to the community’s concerns, and reported himself and his unhoused friends suffering at the hands of the new, more diverse hires of the NPD.
  • Mary said the goal should be fully funding the NPD for greater technology, training, and diversity. She said she supports peaceful protest, but that she would describe the demonstrations she’s seen as “anything but peace. She hoped to see Northampton returned to its “former glory,” and wanted to see shops full and to feel safe walking down the street.
  • David Murphy, a former City Councilor notorious for falling asleep at meetings and who is running again for an At-Large seat, decried last year’s budget cut, pointing out that it was five of the councilors’ first budget vote (apparently, their vote should count less). He said the Council is usually pro-union except for police unions, and said the city was undoing twenty years of progress.
  • Ashwin Ravikumar of Amherst displayed a graph he had created showing the NPD budget’s growth of 148% since 1994, significantly outstripping the growth of other services like Public Works (58%), Arts and Culture (103%), and Human Services (124%). The trend of police budget growth is “inscribed with violence, with murder, with white supremacy, with militarization,” Ravikumar said.
  • Ahalya, of Northampton, who works with unhoused people, reported seeing people rendered unhoused by an impounded car. “Not all police violence is physical or visible,” Ahalya said.
  • Mark Cote, of Ward 1, told of facing police intimidation for campaigning and being stopped for a nonexistent lights violation that the court later threw out when a mechanic proved it was fabricated. He said his experience would have been worse if he were not a white man, and he called for at least $800,000 for the Department of Community Care.
  • Mareatha Wallace, an employee at JFK Middle School, said that expecting something different to come out of the systemic racism of policing is insanity. “I am a Black, gay woman,” said Wallace, “I can’t live in utopia.” She told the Council that “it is time to start doing things that we’ve never done before… As a Black gay woman I am tired of staying in this spot. I want more for me and I want more for my children.”
  • Gabe K. of Northampton, said he was disturbed that Councilors came out in favor of the police budget before hearing public comment. “It’s so painful to have been saying all this stuff for years and not having anyone believe us when police are following trans people with their hands on their guns,” said Gabe, who is trans. As a nurse, Gabe asked why people who are injured need police, and relayed a story of being injured on the bike path and receiving a cop instead of a paramedic when he called for help, whose response worsened Gabe’s physical distress.
  • Aaron Clark, of Ward 7, took issue with the idea that police unions are labor unions. “Police unions are antithetical to the labor union,” Clark said, calling them “reactionary bodies that are used to protect racism and white supremacy.” He also objected to the characterization by another speaker of the rally the previous day as a “riot.” While there was some conflict, he concluded that “We are still here and we’re not going anywhere. That’s not a threat, it’s reality. We care.”
  • Ya-ping Douglass of Turners Falls said she was confused by Councilors’ positive assessment of the NPD after so many people spoke about their experiences and The Shoestring covered NPD misconduct. “How is that computing for you,” she asked, adding, “either you don’t believe these people or you don’t value their pain.”

Brian Zayatz is a member writer at The Shoestring. Avery Martin contributed reporting.

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