Defunding effort is an attempt to kill a good police department

May 18, 2021 | Chris Maza

When the Northampton Police Review Commission released its report, the message was that there was “a common ground” that everyone in Northampton wants to feel safe.

As I have followed the issue of how best to optimize public safety in Northampton, I have very real concerns about whether common ground is actually sought by some members of the community.

While acknowledging Police Chief Jody Kasper said there is that common ground to be found between the commission’s findings and the Police Department’s mission and understanding fully what defunding means, I can only draw one conclusion regarding recent calls to defund the Police Department by as much as 50 percent. Budgetary cuts of this level aren’t made in the interest of finding common ground – this particular proposal exists for the purpose of killing a department altogether.

Kasper’s comments in this week’s edition of The Reminder are especially concerning – that those in favor of this kind of budget cut have not engaged in any conversations with the Police Department on what it could mean to the community. Common ground requires a comprehensive, collaborative approach, but that doesn’t appear to be the goal here.

Many supporters of defunding police departments have been quick to state that the movement isn’t designed to eliminate policing altogether, but what is unfolding in some circles in Northampton paints a very different picture. As reported in this paper earlier this month, for example, the 50 percent cut is supported by Northampton Abolition Now as an acceptable short-term option on the way to the removal of policing in Northampton in its entirety.

Whether as a first step with the intention of putting pressure on elected officials later to make further cuts or with the hope that the depleted police force would simply wither and die, the intent is clear. It isn’t even being hidden.  

This particular movement feels like an unwarranted attack on a department whose leadership has been receptive to community feedback and adaptive in its approach to modern policing, public safety and public health while overall maintaining a strong track record. According to the Attorney General’s Office, since 2015, the year Kasper was appointed chief, seven people have filed complaints against the Northampton Police Department. No legal action was pursued by the Attorney General after investigations into each complaint.    

As the needs of communities evolve, I think it’s important for all public servants to regularly consider their policies and tactics. But instead, the idea is to cut the legs out from under a department’s leadership based primarily on perception and anecdotal evidence in the absence of a substantive pattern of wrongdoing. The School Committee and the superintendent just had conversations on systemic inequalities in the schools as part of discussion on its District Improvement Plan. Imagine if instead of working with the superintendent to alleviate these issues the School Committee opted to cut the school budget. And, sure, there haven’t been any serious issues in Northampton, but with sexual abuse and exploitation committed by educators on the rise, it’s probably best to limit the number of educators as well, right?

Of course not.

I am not saying that the Police Department should be given carte blanche to maintain or increase its budget, staffing, equipment, etc. As with any publicly funded operations, police departments should have to responsibly budget and defend their requests for taxpayer dollars – and with substantive explanations, not just “you just don’t care about public safety” shaming tactics.

Police departments and their employees also should be under scrutiny because of the level of responsibility they hold in our communities and when there are violations of the rights of community members, accountability needs to be an obvious priority.

Keeping perspective is most important when entering into these kinds of discussions and you can’t have proper perspective if you aren’t willing to have all of the voices at the table. It’s my hope that those engaging in this budget conversation keep that in mind.

Pandemic progress is a good thing, isn’t it?

Perhaps I’ve been a little naive, but when the CDC issued its updated COVID-19 guidance and recommendations, I was frankly shocked to see the level of negativity floating around on social media.

I’m confused. Hasn’t all of this – the masks, the distancing, the business closures and restrictions, the vaccinations – taken place with the intent of getting to this point? The number of people who were suddently skeptical of the CDC’s competence and motives seems really misplaced. The way people pick and choose when we’re going to listen to/have faith in the experts relaying the recommendations based on their scientific findings feels strange to me.

There was no whining from this corner of the room regarding masks and distancing because my family and I wanted to ensure health and safety for ourselves and those around us. When it was our turn to get vaccinated, it was cause for celebration – not because we had accomplished any kind of heroic feat but because it meant we were one step closer to regaining normalcy.

The news of recent days has been a good thing – it speaks to vaccine efficacy, success of expanding efforts to vaccinate communities and that our sacrifices over the past year-plus have ultimately helped save lives.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has since followed suit with an announcement on his plan to lift restrictions earlier this week. While at times I have been critical of Baker who initially said he would take a data-driven approach to  restrictions then made some headscratching moves – like mandating masks outdoors regardless of distancing in spite of admitting that there was no science to back it up or stating there was no correlation between restaurants and COVID-19 spread before tightening restaurant restrictions in the next breath – this move appears to follow the numbers. Massachusetts vaccinations are among the highest in the country and our hospitalization numbers are impressively dropping.

One of the major problems, however, is the perception of the word “safe.” No responsible person would say that risk no longer exists. Of course risk remains, but that risk – especially among vaccinated populations which continue to grow – is shrinking to the threshold that can be determined as safe.

Driving a car is considered overall a safe practice in spite of the inherent risk involved. How much, how far, how fast a person drives is based partially on their level of comfort. That’s where we are with the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, you are still in the driver’s seat. Mask-wearing, distance-keeping are still very much in your own control. Do what feels right for your personal comfort level when it comes to your safety.

Obviously there are populations that are not vaccinated that should keep maintaining health and safety protocols. My daughters is among them, so you’ll probably still see me with a mask on from time to time to encourage her to do so.

But the point is we’re heading steadily in the right direction. This is a good thing.

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