The Northampton Policing Review Commission released a 58-page report titled “Reimagining Safety,” with recommendations on how to divert 911 calls away from officers, along with plans to create an unarmed response department.
The commission, which was formed by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra last summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests, drafted the report to find alternative policing methods to responding to 911 calls regarding mental health emergencies or other crises.
The finalized report recommends the creation of an unarmed, peer-led service that will be responsible for mental health emergencies and other calls. The commission added in its report that the idea was not a new one.
“Police reform and new forms of delivering safety services are not new, nor is research recommending a variety of changes and models of structures to be replicated,” the report said.
The unarmed response department, dubbed the “Department of Community Care,” would institutionalize services for mentally ill and substance abusers, and aims to be an alternative to traditional policing.
“For many of our recommendations, we recognize the need for new types of responders, intervention models, and programs within the city to perform actions to ensure the residents of the city are cared for and expand access to safety. These responsibilities need to be housed in a city department with regular funding for their core activities, supplemented by grants in order to begin a new service or provide new training.”
The commission believes that a community care agency can help improve non-aggressive response to emergencies with a focus on deescalating scenarios, and argues that the current policing model is not sufficient.
“At present, our police departments remain at the center of crisis intervention for people experiencing emotional distress. An armed response may not make all feel safe and may at times increase the agitation of those in distress. Northampton needs to develop non-coercive responses to residents experiencing extreme emotional states or who are thinking of and planning to harm themselves or others and to re-envision the role of policing within crisis response,” the commission wrote in its report.
To fund the new department, commission members advocate that 10% of the Northampton Police Department’s funding be redirected towards its creation.
The publication of the lengthy report was a result of 60 regular meetings, three hearings and more than 50 hours of public comment from community members.
Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper told MassLive that she and her department were paying close attention to the developments and reforms coming from the commission and the city council.
Kasper agreed with the commission’s recommendation to have trained mental health professionals alongside officers when responding to mental health related calls, and noted that other recommendations need to be further evaluated before implementation. She also said the report confirmed the value of police work for the city.
“It is my privilege to serve alongside the dedicated and compassionate people who make up the Northampton Police Department. They are well-trained, highly-educated and solution-oriented officers. They are an incredible asset to the city. We look forward to continuing to serve the community by providing the highest level of police services,” she said.
The report noted that for the Department of Community Care to work efficiently, Northampton’s emergency dispatch center, which handles all crisis communications through 911, would play a pivotal role in allowing for a “smooth collaboration” between departments in the community, while easing residents into using the new services without having to memorize new numbers or names.
As for the individual makeup of those serving on the new department, the commission recommended that it prioritize the hiring of people with “lived experience of criminalization and marginalization.”
According to MassLive, the biggest hurdle will be funding the new department. Northampton’s operational fiscal year 2021 budget included the removal of a police department budgetary increase and the 10% budget reduction worth nearly $883,000. The commission recommended the reallocation of those funds to the Department of Community Care.