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Northampton City Council Passes Budget over Calls to Reduce Police “Footprint”

Councilors Maiore and Gore dissented after a lengthy debate about new police hires.

Northampton residents displayed imagined headlines from an abolitionist future at Thursday's city council meeting. Image: Northampton Open Media.

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council voted Thursday evening to approve Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s $132.3 million budget for the coming fiscal year.

Councilors ultimately made no cuts to the spending plan, though they did debate extensively the addition of the three new “student officer” positions that the budget creates at the Northampton Police Department. All but two councilors who expressed concerns about the new positions, Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore and At-large Councilor Jamila Gore, voted in favor of the overall budget.

The fiscal year 2024 budget includes money to create a new climate action administration, funding increase to avoid steep budget cuts in city schools and other spending hikes to the IT department, fire department and elsewhere. The budget represents a 4.77% increase from the previous fiscal year and includes significant hikes to the water charges and sewer fees — which the City Council approved last month — due to Coca-Cola’s closure of its Northampton plant this fiscal year.

Sciarra and Police Chief Jody Kasper have said that those student officers, whose positions will cost the city $157,776 in total, would work as civilians until they make it through the police academy. Creating those positions, they’ve said, would allow the police department to recruit and bring in officer candidates more quickly, speeding up the process of getting those candidates into the police academy filling vacancies. At the moment, they said the department is having to force officers to work overtime because of understaffing.

“We already have folks who serve in this role; what this is doing is creating a space in the budget for that,” Sciarra told the City Council at Thursday’s meeting. Currently, she said, the department has to wait until a full-time officer’s retirement to bring in a student officer. With the new positions, department leadership would be able to bring those student officers in when they know that a full-timer’s retirement is coming. 

Those three positions, which pay $52,592 a year, bring the department’s total budget to $6.83 million in this coming fiscal year. That represents a 5.62% increase to the Northampton Police Department budget over the previous fiscal year, and includes 60 sworn officers — the same as the previous fiscal year.

Ahead of the City Council meeting, the group Northampton Abolition Now held a “Party for a Police-Free Future” at Pulaski Park. Dozens gathered to protest what they said was a pro-police budget.

One of those in attendance was Dan Cannity, the former co-chair of the city’s Policing Review Commission that recommended the creation of the Division of Community Care. He said that “the city’s priorities are off,” noting that the Policing Review Commission called for the city to reduce the footprint of the police department. 

“I want to support a police-free future for Northampton and everywhere,” he said. “Northampton is a great place to start this work … Policing as an institution and as a practice harms people.”

The entirety of the City Council’s discussion of the general budget — and nearly all of the evening’s public comment period — was devoted to the NPD budget. Several city residents first spoke in favor of the student-officer positions, saying that it is an issue of safety to have officers held for required overtime because of vacancies that the police department has a hard time filling quickly. 

Amy Wilson Cahillane, the executive director of the Downtown Northampton Association, was one of those who spoke in favor of the police budget, although not in her official capacity.

“To allow a situation that we know is unsafe, unsustainable and fiscally expensive to continue feels inappropriate,” Cahillane said.

Others like city resident Mahajoy Laufer called on the City Council to steer funding away from the police department toward social services. 

“I’ve seen as a mental health worker the importance of giving to the community, helping people address larger-system needs,” Laufer said. “There’s a high need for mental health help, and I think the response from the police is often not adequate and I think that when we put more money into the community we have a stronger way to help people — especially of color — and those who are marginalized.”

None of the city councilors ever proposed an amendment to cut the student-officer line items from the budget. In speaking about the hires, most councilors voiced their support for the strategy.

Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton said that he doesn’t see the new positions as locking the city into a long-term course of action. If the new positions don’t work in reducing overtime — the city has spent 181% of what it budgeted for police overtime this fiscal year, Sciarra said — then Moulton suggested the city could change course in future years.

“This is a mechanism, as I see it, to formalize a process that will allow student officers to be brought into the department and they’ll be able then to take advantage of the first available training rather than having to wait for the next police academy to be scheduled,” Moulton said.

Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster shared similar thoughts. 

“My hope is that long term, if we’re able to see officers move through the training process more quickly, I think a reduction in overtime would be a net gain for the city,” she said.

Maiore was the city councilor who voiced the most concerns about the new positions. She noted that the city’s new Division of Community Care — the civilian-responder agency the city created in 2021 to remove some types of calls from the police department — is not up and running yet. 

The Division of Community Care hopes to get those responders hired by June 20 and responding to calls by September. The division is housed under the city’s Health and Human Services Department, which had its funding increased by 1.18% under Sciarra’s budget. That includes $358,234 for the division’s personnel. 

Maiore said that with the Division of Community Care beginning its work so soon, the timing of the request for the student-officer positions felt “premature.” She said that many city departments have staffing or financial issues, from deeper vacancies at the Department of Public Works to cuts that will still be happening in the city’s schools.

“I think we do need to own that we are increasing the financial footprint here,” Maiore said.

Gore also said she wished the Division of Community Care was running before considering new hires at the police department, which does not align with the goal of reducing the police’s footprint in the city.

“I don’t feel I can support adding these three new officers,” Gore said. “It’s just not something that’s aligned with my values and the values of a lot of community members we’ve heard from.”

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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