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Northampton, Mass., Commission Wants New Department To Take Over Some Police Duties

Northampton, Massachusetts, Police Chief Jody Kasper, kneeling second from left, with protesters demonstrating against police brutality and racism.
Alden Bourne
Northampton Police Lieutenant Alan Borowski (left), Chief Jody Kasper and Massachusetts State Police Major Michael Habel agreed to kneel with protesters last summer.

A commission in Northampton, Massachusetts, wants a new city department to take on many of the tasks police do now. 

The Northampton Policing Review Commission sprung from last summer's protests for racial justice.

In its final report to the city council, the 12-member group recommended creating a new Department of Community Care that would respond to most crises involving mental health, homelessness or substance abuse.

"You wouldn't necessarily go to an eye doctor if you had shoulder pain," said Dan Cannity, commission co-chair. "It's the same thing. We want to make sure that when someone calls and they're having a mental health crisis, that they get a team that's trained, that's unarmed, that's ready to help them and not escalate that situation just by being armed."

Cannity said creating a new department won't be cheap, but money could come from police funds cut last year, from money saved on jobs police won’t be doing anymore, and possibly by joining with other towns.

"We still believe that the responsibilities for community safety have to be funded. The question is, who's doing that?" he said. "And then you make sure that you fund the responsibility and whoever's responding to those things, regardless of what department they're in."

The City Council plans to take up the recommendations on March 30. The commission will then pass the torch and disband, Cannity said. The council could decide to create a new police oversight commission, but that's not one of the report’s recommendations.

Since the Northampton Policing Review Commission was formed in September 2020, it has held more than 60 meetings and three public hearings.

Cynthia Suopis, a commission co-chair, said hearing hours of public comment was illuminating.

"Being a white person who's lived here and always felt safe, we had so many people [testifying] who felt so unsafe," she said. "You know it in the back of your mind but … you begin to see this is very real. And so what is our responsibility as a community to address that?"

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said she has reviewed the commission's report and plans to watch the presentation to the City Council "and hear further discussion."

"I was pleased to see support for mental health and addiction co-responders, the development of a strategic plan for the Police Department, and the creation of a Resilience Hub for people experiencing homelessness," Kasper wrote in an email. "Other recommendations require further examination."

Mayor David Narkewicz declined to comment until the council takes up the report.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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