Thoughts on the police budget


I want to acknowledge the hundreds of people who emailed and called me, and everyone who spoke at the meetings this week and last week. I appreciate your testimony, and your courage. I find being a city councilor a wonderful experience, and am also filled with anxiety to speak out. Speaking last week, I felt like I did the first time I spoke before council, which was terrified! I won’t let that stop me, and I don’t want that to stop you either. Let’s fulfill the promise of our democratic process and hear from all voices.

I have been horrified by the murder of George Floyd and by violent actions of police toward black and brown people around the country. The protests we've seen across the nation and here in Northampton demonstrate the built-up anger and frustration at the continued oppression, on top of centuries of systemic racism that deny people of color economic security, safety and respect.

I have been listening to people of color – mostly black people, who describe what it is like to be black in Northampton. Followed, with an officer’s hand on their gun. Stopped for picking a blackberry from the side of the road. Called “Hey Boy” and questioned. And the first-person testimony on mistreatment by the Northampton police we've heard in the hearings was heartbreaking. Most white people I talk to in town think that our police department is doing just fine, and it is very clear to me that we are not.

I am a believer in the goodness of each person, even when put into a system that pushes them to make choices they know aren’t always right. Most members of our police department care about people and want the best for their community. There is valuable work done by the police every day. Demonizing individuals will only create separation. Holding individuals responsible for their actions is crucial, especially those in positions of power. Systemic change is what we need.

I believe Chief Kasper has good intentions and it is clear there is so much more work to do. Our police department has and will be undertaking steps and training to be fair and impartial, to understand racism and reduce the use of force. These actions are absolutely necessary.

Any actions that the NPD takes to improve don't get to the core of the problems our society faces -- economic inequality, racism, addiction, and domestic violence, to name a few. I think it's worth looking at our city's budget from a new perspective.

How many of our police officers’ tasks can be done by people who are not armed, with better outcomes? At the budget hearing on 6/3, I asked how many of the department’s calls were related to a mental health issue (about 1 in 5), and spoke about a program in Eugene, Oregon, where 1 in 5 calls are responded to by mental health first responders rather than police ( I researched this further and found articles stating that specifically trained mental health workers, unarmed and not in uniform, can reach better outcomes with much less cost. How many of these stories we heard at the hearings would have ended differently if we’d had a program like this?

How could reallocation of the funds we are spending on policing alleviate the problems that policing is needed to solve? For example, housing. How much does it cost the city to police the unhoused? How much does it cost the state to provide health care to people for whom the emergency room is their doctor’s office? Would it be cheaper, and create much better outcomes, to simply house them?

I call for:

  • Creating a body to explore alternatives to policing. The Council can start a Select Committee to explore legislative action. Once we have a clear path forward on alternatives, use savings from a reduced police budget to fund these alternatives.
  • Enacting legislation to increase public safety and create policy. We saw this with the results of the Select Committee on Pesticide Reduction where we created policy that the executive branch must follow, though they have the leeway to implement it, as per our charter.
  • Creating a Civilian Oversight Board for the police, with power to investigate wrongdoing independently. Ensure that our police union contracts don’t imperil public safety.
  • Implementing Participatory Budgeting, a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget.

On Monday 6/8 the Mayor withdrew his previous budget and substituted another with a net reduction in the police budget of $19,000. He did this by reducing the number of cruisers that will be replaced this year from 5 to 2.

We passed the first of two votes we will take on this budget, but with many concerns about the state of policing in Northampton. The Mayor and the Council President will be working together this week to formulate a plan that they will bring back to the Council. There is growing consensus on the council that this plan should provide for shrinking the Police Department, growing other forms of emergency response, and meeting the human needs of people rather than policing them.

I don’t think we’ll have the best outcomes if we rush this process. The reality is that the people we have doing emergency response now are the police (along with the fire/rescue), and they are doing some of the public health work, the mental health work, the addiction work, the traffic details, the work with the unhoused. We need to shift that and it needs to be as fast as we can, but with a plan. I will be working this week to study possible reductions and how they could be in line with this plan.

We will take a second and final vote on the budget on Thursday 6/18, at 5 pm at our next City Council meeting. Please join us then! You can participate in public comment, or comment by email to The agenda and Zoom/call-in information is posted here.

I very much appreciate fellow councilor Karen Foster's perspective and summary in her newsletter from 6/9.

(View the previous version of this from 6/9/20)