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'It’s Just Going To Be Different': In Northampton, Mass., A Debate Over The Future Of Policing

A commission in Northampton, Massachusetts, suggested major changes to the city's policing approach. The police chief is pushing back on some parts — but not all.

The Northampton Policing Review Commission, created after last summer's racial justice protests, spent half a year thinking of ways to change the city's reliance on the police.

A key premise was, the more that armed officers respond to non-criminal matters — from mental health crises to parking disputes — the more likely things can escalate into violence.

“My hope is that at a baseline, we'll be able to respond a little bit better to the needs of the most marginalized people in the city,” said Dan Cannity, co-chair of the commission, “and that everyone will feel respected and dignified.”

The commission’s main recommendation was to create a new Department of Community Care, based on models in other cities across the country. It would oversee a different kind of responder: people trained in mental health, addiction or homelessness who would be dispatched for non-violent calls.

Over time, that could mean shrinking the regular police force, though the commission's report did not address the police budget directly.

“We want an alternative to police, but it's also an alternative to policing, as a process,” Cannity said.

“Definitely they want to have some calls where officers don't go," Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said, "and we want that, too."

But while Kasper welcomes civilian responders in some circumstances, she said it can be hard to know, just from the 911 call, what a responder is walking into.

“You may call because your loved one is in their room, feeling depressed, needs to talk to someone. They won't come out. But, like, there's no there's no escalating or violence. No threat. Yes. Send clinicians to help that person and get them wherever they need to go,” Kasper said. “There are other calls where people are holding a knife to their throat ... or throwing things. And I mean, this is not something that rarely happens. Daily, weekly, we have these sorts of calls.”

Kasper wants alternative responders as additional resources, working alongside the police. 

She’s concerned that creating a new department would eventually mean police layoffs, although the commission report does not explicitly recommend that. Kasper said if staffing goes below five officers per shift — the minimum they have now — that’s a problem even if the police end up getting fewer calls overall as a result of the alternative responders.

“When we have an OUI accident or a bank robbery or a domestic (violence incident) or whatever we have, you still need the same minimum number of officers,” she said. “We don't get to lay our calls out in a perfect line and do them one at a time. That's not how it works. In a city, people have an expectation the police can respond.”

Credit File photo / Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Northampton, Massachusetts, Police Chief Jody Kasper speaks at a community discussion in 2017.

If the new mental health responders work out of a different building, under different supervision, Kasper said police will have a harder time sharing information, and troubled people may never get help.

But say a clinician arrives at the police station in the morning, “and someone from the overnight shift says, ‘Hey, we dealt with Person X last night. We're kind of worried about him. Can you follow up with him today?’” she said. “And they're able to do that follow up — there's just so much better communication when you're a unified organization.”

Cynthia Suopis, co-chair of the policing commission, said she knows there’s a trade-off with creating a new department.

“Yeah, it's going to be really hard to communicate, just like it's hard for the mayor and the City Council to communicate in their silos,” Suopis said. “But what we get from that is a check and balance.”

Cannity said he’s not worried about coordination, because 911 dispatchers already have to triage calls between fire, police and ambulance. He expects they can handle the additional job of assigning calls to the mental health responders.

Cannity said asking the existing police department to absorb the new unarmed responders is just not a big enough change.

“That's the kind of reform that we've had for the past 70 years,” he said. “And it doesn't necessarily work.”

Jasmine Sinclair, who organized a protest in Northampton, Mass., delivers a list of demands, including a one-third reduction in the budget for the Northampton Police Department.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
Jasmine Sinclair, who organized a protest in Northampton, Mass., delivers a list of demands, including a one-third reduction in the budget for the Northampton Police Department.

In public testimony, some Northampton residents said they're frightened at the sight of police, even when they're just directing traffic or attending community events.

Kasper said she took those comments to heart, but at the same time, there is a downside to removing police officers from many of the lower-stakes jobs they do now.

“There is a huge benefit to our staff to go out into the community and have positive interactions with people, and that's part of our own mental health,” Kasper said. “I mean, if you can imagine just kind of waiting in the building all day for bad things to happen, you go out and deal with them. You come back and that's your whole job for 30 years.”

“Being a problem solver is what many people got into (policing) for,” she said. “So I am very concerned about the types of candidates we will be recruiting if these dramatic changes happen. “

Kasper said it's already getting harder to recruit. She said Northampton police often don't feel valued and they worry about job security.

After the City Council reduced the police budget by 10% in June, the department cut five positions. Since then, Kasper said, another seven officers have quit and a few more are planning to.

But from the commission's point of view, this is a painful but necessary crossroads for all police departments.

“The police profession is going to change dramatically no matter who wants to apply,” Suopis said. “If they think they're applying to policing 1.0, it’s (actually) 2.0, it’s 3.0. It’s just going to be different.”

One thing the commissioners and the police chief agree on is the need for more data — to understand how many calls could go to alternate responders, how many police officers are necessary, and how much the changes would cost. 

Officially, the commission has ended its work, and whether or not its recommendations are put in place is now up to elected city leaders.

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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