Commentary

“A Turning Point”: Mayor Narkewicz says “only direction” is defunding City’s Police, proposes level funding for Police

By T. Wilmot and Matthew Vernon Whalan

I am a Northampton resident who finds the violence by armed law enforcement, which I’ve witnessed firsthand in Northampton and has been unfolding nationally, appalling. I am among many calling to reduce funding to the Northampton Police Department (NPD), and have participated in demonstrations to this end.

On Wednesday, June 10, the Northampton City Council held a Special Meeting to continue discussing Police funding before finalizing the City’s budget next week. Hundreds of residents attended the meeting by Zoom.

City Councilors received thousands of emails and calls between the June 4 hearing on the subject and Wednesday’s Special City Council Meeting to further discuss the police budget, the vast majority of which called for reduced funding.

By the end, even Mayor David Narkewicz acknowledged “a turning point,” at which “there is really only one direction” to go with the police budget: defunding.

Two hours of Public Comment Section began Wednesday’s City Council meeting. Three callers expressed support for the Police Department, while more than 30 denounced Police abuse, shared negative experiences, and called for substantial cuts to the Department’s budget. Some asked the city to follow Camden and Minneapolis, disbanding and replacing the city’s Police Department.

Throughout the call, a majority of Councilors said they received a notably large volume of emails and phone calls to defund the Police. Councilor Marianne LaBarge claimed she received over 2,631 emails on the issue and many calls, adding, “It just does not stop.”During Public Comment, many speakers expressed outrage that the Mayor had not already proposed substantive defunding.

“The fact that Mayor Narkewicz is not listening to the people of this town and responding to this historic moment,” said a longtime Northampton resident, who preferred not to be named, “leads me to believe that you guys, who are voting on this budget, who can keep him honest, have to stand up and represent us.” 

In his opening statement, the Mayor stood by his proposal to maintain Police funding without increase. He claimed that reducing the budget by 0.28% was as close as possible to level funding, meaning the nominal cut was not in response to community calls to defund the Police, but incidental to the level funding process.

Pressed by Councilor Alex Jarrett, the Mayor replied, “There is [sic] ways that we could reduce our [Police] force.” He said that replacing armed law enforcement with other public safety professionals “may be the right direction [to] move in, and I’m open to that. I think even [Police] Chief Kasper is open to that.”

He insisted: “There would have to be a way that we could assure the community that when [people in Northampton] call 911” they will receive “some sort of service,” but did not clarify why he was concerned that services might not respond. Council did not ask for clarification.

Councilor Jarrett said the “military style equipment” in the police response to the June 6 protest “posed a public health risk.”

He noted: “People were afraid to come” protest police brutality, “because of the fear of violence… by police.”

Councilor Marianne LaBarge was “not too happy” that armored vehicles were at the protest.

Many residents claimed during public comment in Wednesday’s meeting, previous budget hearings, on the NPD Facebook page, and off the record, that officers pepper sprayed a minor outside the station at a June 1 demonstration against police brutality.

The Mayor declined to answer Councilor Jarrett’s question regarding this recent NPD use of force on teenagers, and whether the NPD would use force similarly moving forward. He said: “I don’t know that it’s necessarily part of the [Special Meeting] agenda,” which was called to discuss concerns about the Police budget. 

Councilor Michael Quinlan countered that the community demands the budget reflect its values around policing.

The Mayor’s office again declined to comment by email on June 11 regarding the same use of force incident.

On June 3, Councilor William Dwight lamented that the national outrage over police misconduct was being “projected onto [Kasper’s] Department,” despite its “progressive policing,” and that he was “afraid” Chief Kasper’s “amazing effort” to ”expand diversity [was] never going to be… appreciated.”

One week later, in the June 10 Special Meeting, Dwight said the Council’s consensus is to defund and replace Police services: “It is clearly not just a desire to decrease at this time, but a progressing decrease for all time on the current policing systems that exist and how we subsidize those systems in our community. Obviously, I get the sense that the consensus is not just on this council.” Here, the Mayor conceded the city’s turning point,” with “one direction [to] go.”

The Mayor promised to consider adjusting the budget in collaboration with Council President Sciarra before the June 18 final vote. Pressed several times by the Council, he would not specify any adjustments he might consider. Narkewicz’s only specific commitments on the subject prevent the transition demanded by his constituents from moving forward.

On Wednesday, the Mayor claimed to believe the following:

(1) Northampton wants “immediate change.”

(2) Transitioning away from armed law enforcement toward other public safety interventions is the “one direction” forward.

(3) The city needs to deploy unarmed public health professionals to emergency response calls in order to safely transition.

However, several times before the June 10 hearing, Mayor Narkewicz said he would not redirect savings from cuts to Police funding into other public safety. His Request for Withdrawal, which accompanied the revised budget sent out before the June 10 hearing, reiterated this commitment.

The Mayor is presenting the City Council with an ultimatum: approve level Police funding or compromise public safety.

The prevailing opinion of the Mayor’s constituents, however, is that NPD is overfunded and this excess spending reduces public safety. The City Council pleaded with the Mayor to specify changes to the proposal, but a vague promise to look at the budget with the Council President before Thursday’s final vote was the only commitment they secured.

In the meeting, several councilors expressed concern over the Mayor’s incongruent statements, asking if his commitment could be amended into the proposal, and if they could require him to direct savings from Police cuts to public safety. The Council does not have authority to make the Mayor’s commitment binding or to reallocate savings.

On several occasions, the Mayor has obfuscated details about the process and consequences of reducing NPD funding.

Narkewicz claimed on June 4, “Cutting $193,000 out of the budget would require eliminations of positions. That’s just the way it would work.” On June 8, he cut more than $193,000 from his proposal without eliminating positions.

The City Council has the authority to further cut NPD’s funding, but the particulars of the budget and the consequences are opaque, and the Mayor has furthered this opacity. The City Council did not receive itemized budgets detailing, for example, how much money will be spent on tear gas, pepper spray, ammunition, tasers, etc.

Wage cuts to collective bargaining agreements are permitted under labor law if “economic exigencies compel prompt action,” according to the National Labor Relations Board.

The Mayor has acknowledged an urgent fiscal fiscal crisis.

Northampton faces “a dire revenue picture,” he told the Gazette last month. “The pandemic has plunged our economy into a recession that may take years to recover from.”

Councilor Jarrett said toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, “I’m a strong supporter of alternatives to policing, both to do the emergency response work in a way that leads to better outcomes, and to support the people that are being policed instead of policing them.” 

He added: “We need to ensure that our Police Union contracts don’t imperil public safety.”

The Council approved the proposal, noting that otherwise the budget would go into effect by default on July 1.

In a June 11 email, the Mayor’s Office declined to comment for this article. Additional comment was requested in a June 12 email, awaiting reply as of this writing.

In Wednesday’s meeting, the Mayor said about Police funding: “I think that we will be judged on what comes next.”

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