‘We are at a turning point’: Mass. city adopts 2021 budget despite criticism from residents
Despite keeping Northampton PD's budget largely the same from FY 2020, Mayor David Narkewicz says he is committed to systemic change in the near future
By Jackson Cote
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Northampton resident Gillian Cannon swaddled her baby Wednesday evening as she argued for the need to defund her community’s police department, addressing around 400 people on a virtual city council meeting about the community’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.
White people do not listen to people of color as a general rule, and that is what we have to do. As a majority-white town, that is our responsibility,” she said. “Anyone who actively supports oppression and actively exists in a structure that is murdering black people and brown people, they have relinquished their humanity."
The Zoom video conference call drew hundreds of voices, many of whom, like Cannon, called for reducing the Northampton Police Department’s funding in the wake of nationwide outrage over systemic racism and the excessive use of force by law enforcement.
Wednesday’s meeting was also held just days after the community’s mayor, David Narkewicz, proposed cuts to police funding following multiple city council meetings in which people expressed outrage over the public official’s initial FY 2021 budget proposal, which sought to add nearly $194,000 to the agency’s annually allotted funds.
In his previous budget proposal submitted on May 18, Narkewicz aimed to increase law enforcement funding by $193,579 or 2.88% in fiscal year 2021.
More than $140,000 would been allocated to contractually obligated salary hikes, $8,072 to police training and $45,465 to replace five police cars with hybrid cruisers.
In the mayor’s initial proposal, a total of $6,913,403 would have been set aside for law enforcement.
Now, with Narkewicz’s newly introduced draft, the police department may see a decrease in its FY 2021 budget of $19,066 or -0.28% from FY 2020, according to a letter Narkewicz wrote to City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra.
City councilors unanimously voted by the end of the meeting Wednesday night to adopt the mayor’s budget proposal. A second vote will be held June 18 to finalize the FY 2021 budget. Comments from residents will be heard at that hearing as well.
The public hearing portion of Wednesday’s meeting lasted two hours, and participants were each given up to three minutes to speak until an alarm sounded. The city council’s previous meeting ended around 2 a.m., Sciarra noted, and so, additional time for comments from residents was made prior to Wednesday’s meeting.
Many of those who talked during this week’s city council meeting claimed the mayor’s cuts were not enough and argued officials, like Narkewicz and Northampton Police Chief Jody D. Kasper, need to rethink the way law enforcement is structured.
"We need to radically change the way we think about serving our whole community,” resident Erica Roper said. “If we don’t want to fire the Northampton Police Department, see how many of them stay when you take away their guns and call them a ‘peace department.’ "
Roper’s argument was echoed by several more participants over the course of the virtual meeting. Some claimed Narkewicz, in his proposed budget, did not address concerns that residents brought up during the previous two city council meetings.
“The mayor’s new proposal was frankly offensive. As others have said, the minuscule reduction in the proposed budget is an attempt to appease us," said Cannon. “It definitely speaks to the fact that he is in no way listening to what we are loudly, loudly saying.”
Dozens of those who tuned in to the public hearing had pictures on their Zoom profiles that showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police departments across the country.
Individuals’ profile pictures featured slogans such as “status quo policing = wrong side of history,” “disarm, defund, disband Northampton PD” and “Defund the police! Black lives matter."
“I recognize the limits of what the council can do, but I urge you to pressure those who have control to make the changes that we as a community need,” said resident Daniel Cannity during the meeting. “For the mayor - I know you’re on - and Chief Kasper, if you’re here, hear us.”
Narkewicz spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, mentioning that he attended the previous two city council hearings and followed “very closely” the debate on his proposed budget. The mayor sought to eliminate any sort of an increase to the police department’s budget following the meetings, he noted.
Obviously, I was trying to respond to what I was hearing from the council and what I was hearing from the public about being opposed to any kind of increase to the budget at this time,” Narkewicz said. “I understand that, since I submitted this budget back on May 18, we are in a different place, and I share the concern and the outrage that the public has expressed and that we’re seeing all across the country."
Protests have erupted throughout the nation following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died on Memorial Day after a white Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
Demonstrations in recent weeks, including two held in Northampton that drew thousands of individuals, have sought an end to police brutality and a complete overhaul of the law enforcement model in the United States.
A number of individuals on the video conference call Wednesday shared their worries about the number of police officers at Northampton’s protests, particularly at the second demonstration on June 6. Some participants claimed law enforcement who showed up to the march appeared militarized.
“When I first showed up to the protest, I was walking past the road that has the parking garage and the court house, and I witnessed two big, black vans, where basically people dressed for ‘Desert Storm’ were coming out,” Emily Hunerwadel, a Northampton resident, said at the meeting.
Hunerwadel recalled rounding the corner during Saturday’s demonstration to get to the main area of the protest when she saw a mother nursing her baby and felt the need to warn her about the strong police presence near them.
“That just feels like something that shouldn’t be happening in our community,” she said.
Jesse Hassinger - who co-owns Belly of the Beast, a restaurant on Main Street, Northampton - voiced his opinion regarding the number of law enforcement officials at the protest over the weekend. He appeared on the Zoom call with his wife and business co-owner, Aimee Francaes.
Hassinger claimed that the “militarized presence" at Saturday’s protest was “unwarranted” and “an enormous waste of money.”
“There was no reason [for] the added presence of six additional police departments: the state police, who Chief Kasper says was necessary for crowd control, Amherst, Easthampton, Hadley, UMass Amherst’s police department as well as the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office," he said.
The restaurant owner added, “This was an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars, and as a taxpayer, I do not support this use of force against citizens, regardless of their threat level.”
He also argued that until the Northampton Police Department is completely defunded, officer-worn cameras need to be used at all times.
“There is no reason this should not be the case," Hassinger said.
In a Facebook post dated Sunday, Kasper addressed the backup police units that stood by at Saturday’s protest. She noted that authorities were expecting a crowd size of 4,000 to 6,000 people and received intelligence reports about increased threats to civilians and police at such large protests.
Kasper mentioned that at demonstrations in Massachusetts this past week, protestors have thrown bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. Businesses and law enforcement vehicles have been set on fire by demonstrators as well, she said.
White supremacists targeting protests has also proven to be a threat, the police chief added.
Having mutual aid partners and Massachusetts State Police at large-scale events in communities is “routine,” she noted.
“We balanced providing a safe area for protestors with the knowledge that our presence was unwelcome for some in the crowd,” Kasper wrote in her post. “With this in mind, we methodically worked to create a safe space for everyone involved in yesterday’s event.”
Others who participated in the virtual hearing Wednesday proposed reallocating funds from law enforcement toward other city services, including public education, health and housing.
During the video conference, Smith College student Alice Ahn argued that too much funding goes toward police, while other important city agencies receive less money. Law enforcement in Northampton gets more than $6 million, whereas public health gets nearly $500,000, she noted.
For such an affluent city to spend money in this manner when there are people on the street ... is insulting and infuriating, especially in a pandemic," Ahn said. “To see so much money go to the police is emblematic of what the system’s priorities really are, and it’s not for the support of the people.”
Northampton resident Mark Guglielmo noted he has three uncles who are police officers. Despite those relationships, the Northampton resident said, his “ability to see what policing has become in this country" has not been clouded.
Citizens are living in a historic moment, he said. It has been roughly 50 years since the country took a “good, hard look” at law enforcement in the United States, according to Guglielmo.
“I’ve never seen that many people on the streets in our town - I’m in Ward 3, I’ve been here 13 years - come out and say, ‘Listen, we do not feel safer with the police here,' " Guglielmo said.
Several others who attended Wednesday evening’s meeting expressed disapproval about the idea of completely cutting the Northampton Police Department’s budget, though the majority of the people who spoke during the public hearing were in favor of such a measure.
Critics of the call to defund the agency argued police are needed to respond to victims of crimes, including those suffering at the hands of domestic abusers. Multiple proponents countered by saying that they are survivors of abuse and have not felt supported when reporting their crimes to police.
One participant who spoke against decreasing law enforcement’s budget claimed Northampton’s police department is “exceptional.”
“Would we defund schools because they need to do a better job educating our children? Of course not,” Florence resident Catherine Kay said, adding that she wants the “senseless violence” against people of color to stop. “We need to maintain our exceptional department.”
City councilors took multiple hours after the public comment portion of the meeting to ask Narkewicz questions about his proposed budget and discuss policing in the community.
Officials talked about the need to advance community relations between residents and the police. Multiple councilors also asked what would “fill the vacuum” left by a defunded Northampton Police Department.
Although the city councilors voted to adopt the mayor’s budget, several noted there is a need to look at policing in the future and consider how to restructure law enforcement, defund it and add additional oversight.
“We do need to make these changes, and we also need to look at, as a council as a whole, some of the ideas that have been coming our way, such as looking at specific ordinances and policy changes,” said Councilor John Thorpe.
Systemic change is needed, said Councilor Alex Jarrett, who added that he is a “strong supporter” of alternatives to policing, though he does not want to move too quickly in defunding the department. He proposed creating an official body to explore methods, other than policing, to ensure public safety.
If we meet people’s basic human needs, we will reduce the need for policing,” Jarrett said. “I don’t think we will have the best outcomes if we rush this process. I want us to reduce the police budget further, but I want to know what we are replacing it with and have a plan in place.”
Councilor William H. Dwight pointed out there is an ongoing national movement that is calling for a “progressive decrease” in current policing systems. There is a demand for a structural redesign of what public safety is, the city councilor noted.
“I am indeed shaken to my core, not only from the testimonies, but also the volume,” he said of the comments heard during the meeting. “Our portion of the reckoning is here tonight, and it doesn’t stop here. It’s merely an initial step.”
When fielding inquiries from city councilors, Narkewicz noted, “We are at a turning point.”
“There’s really only one direction we can go,” the mayor said. “In terms of what comes next, I think we’ll be judged on what comes next.”
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