Police budget decisions tonight


I've spent the last few days traveling around my ward, listening to anyone who's out in their yard or standing in the smoking shelters of their apartment complex, asking them what's going on and what they think about the police budget. The stories are complex but most relate to mental health issues, addiction, lack of housing and domestic violence. These are issues that I believe people other than the police would be more equipped to handle and would result in better outcomes for everyone. Police in this country and here in Northampton, despite good intentions, function as a tool to manage the inequalities of our society, which produces injustice for people who are poor, not white, or who are socially marginalized.

The NPD is known as a model department. There is valuable work done by our police every day. I spent an hour with the Chief yesterday and, while not perfect, it is functioning just as a police department should. And that's the problem. There are limits to policing, and about what we are asking police to do. We ask them to be experts in fields that they are not, and to do jobs where the presence of armed officers actually makes the situations worse. A different solution is needed to our problems - in addition to police reform.

I believe a 35% reduction in the police force is an achievable goal. Given the number of calls the department gets that could be answered by alternatives to policing, and the research that shows that investing in the human needs of our community reduces the need for policing, we can do this. And not just to respond to crises in the moment, but to seek prevention through community investment.

So how do we get there?

Let's talk about what a reduction today would mean. I've spoken about not wanting to rush the process, and wanting a plan to be in place. Here's why we should think about reducing some of the budget now:

  • It will hold us and the mayor accountable. Government policy is usually reactive, not proactive. Yes, we are reacting to recent events, but that is because these events have catalyzed a huge number of people to take action on problems we've had for a long time. We have to be proactive, and push the issue forward. That's how change has usually happened in other communities.
  • This is a moment in history where we have support to make bold change. These moments don't come that often.
  • What will fall out if we reduce policing? It won't be the response to emergencies or major crimes. It will be a few of the building/property checks, the response to minor crimes, the checking up on people who are hanging out. Does the presence of police actually reduce crime? Sometimes, but most of the time the police arrive after a crime has occurred.
  • Police can't fix most of our social problems. Drugs, for example. Some of the apartment complexes in my ward have extensive problems with drug dealing. Police often aren't able to fix that problem with the tools they have of enforcement. Even if they did the underlying problems would still be there and others would take their place. But why do people deal and use drugs? Economic concerns, and the disease of addiction, which is closely related to racism and poverty. Let's put resources into solving these problems.
  • We are in a period of an economic contraction, many unknown additional costs due to COVID and a likely decrease in state funding. The costs for personal protective equipment at the schools should they reopen in person are estimated to be $1.6 million, plus untold other retrofitting to the buildings. We are going to have to make cuts. Where should they come from? This budget already cuts over 17 positions in other departments, and we know more are likely coming.
  • We as a council need to retain our power in this process. This is the time we have budgetary power to set a department's budget. We have different branches of government because they bring different pieces of change and shape our community in different ways. It is our responsibility to hold the power as legislators for the community. Reducing now will insure the process moves. The reductions can be gradual throughout the year as we implement new programs. And remember that the Mayor can always ask us for more money.

I can't in good conscience support a cut of the size that some are requesting, without alternatives in place. There are too many unknowns, and I'm not willing to risk public safety and the future of this movement in Northampton. I have looked at the size of our force in relation to many other college towns with tourism, and at the distribution and types of calls for service. Let's have a conversation about a 15% cut. What would this mean in terms of policing? What would it free up for the many other needs we have in our city?

We will need near consensus to pass anything tonight, and I am putting this forward in a spirit of collaboration, conversation, and knowing that all of us care deeply for this city. Regardless of what we decide tonight, I am committed to moving these issues forward, with input from all members of the community.

We will be voting on this issue tonight (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 citycouncil@northamptonma.gov. The agenda and Zoom/call-in information is posted here.

(View more of my thoughts, from 6/12/20)