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Northampton to Train Civilian Emergency Response Teams

The Massachusetts city will shift some response protocols away from the police to a clinically trained civilian response team that will not carry firearms. The city will spend more than $400,000 on the new department.

(TNS) — The city of Northampton is making moves on a historic new municipal department proposed earlier this month that aims to shift some responsibilities away from police by hiring clinically trained civilians to respond to certain emergencies without firearms.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz on Monday unveiled the first draft of his fiscal year 2022 budget, which calls for $423,955 for the proposed Department of Community Care. The entire FY operational budget calls for $121,705,839, marking a 4.82 percent increase from last year’s budget.

The 2021 FY budget was significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The overall economic uncertainty of the early months of the public health crisis combined with significantly reduced local revenue and the decision to delay the implementation of the Proposition two-and-a-half override forced the city to make “difficult budgetary choices,” including the elimination of the equivalent of 22 full-time jobs across nine municipal departments, Narkewicz wrote in the introduction of this year’s budget.

“The budget I am proposing for FY 2022 is one of cautious optimism and active recovery as our city and the nation continue to bring the deadly COVID-19 pandemic under control with infection and mortality rates in decline and millions of Americans now vaccinated against the deadly virus,” Narkewicz noted in the budget, which is dated May 17. “As this message goes to print, 67 percent of Northampton residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 49 percent are now fully vaccinated.”

In the mayor’s newly submitted budget, he laid out how the new community care department would be housed under the Health and Human Services Division. His goal is to put in place the initial staffing and resources needed to fully develop the proposed agency and provide the next mayor a recommended blueprint for operating the agency “that can be codified through both an administrative order and ultimately their first city budget for FY 2023.”

The three-term chief city executive announced in January he won’t be seeking reelection after serving roughly 10 years as mayor.

The idea for the community care department was proposed by the Northampton Policing Review Commission (NPRC), a 15-member, civilian-led body formed by the mayor and Northampton City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement last summer.

Propelled by Floyd’s death and the police killings of other Black Americans that sparked national protest and put a spotlight on the historic inequities and systemic racism in law enforcement and society at large, Narkewicz and Sciarra said, hundreds of Northampton residents called on their elected leaders to rethink the city’s approach to policing and whether certain public safety services could be delivered by others.

The creation of the NPRC was viewed as Northampton public officials’ response to community members’ demands that elected leaders rethink the city’s approach to policing and reimagine law enforcement structures moving forward.

The NPRC was tasked with conducting a sweeping policy review about policing, studying an array of complex law enforcement issues and releasing a final report by March that recommends how the city can change the face of public safety for the better in the years to come.

After months of study and deliberation, dozens of meetings and multiple hours-long public hearings, the commission released its 58-page final report, titled, “Reimagining Safety.” Chief among the document’s recommendations is the call for the Department of Community Care.

Other proposals in the final report include recommendations that the city expand emergency response options, promote houseless individuals’ safety, reduce the risk of substance use, transition certain police responsibilities to peer and co-responder models while continuing to provide law enforcement responses for some 911 calls, improve complaint processes for the Northampton Police Department and establish a strategic plan for the agency.

As outlined by the commission, the community care department would be staffed 24/7, be made up of individuals historically marginalized by law enforcement structures in the United States and provide multiple types of civilian responders to community needs, including peer response to mental health and substance use crises as an alternative to police response.

The final report called for the mayor’s office to fund the new department in FY 2022 and make it fully operational by FY 2023.

The nearly $425,000 allocated for the proposed agency in Narkewicz’s newly unveiled fiscal year operational budget includes funding for the hiring of a senior-level project coordinator to assemble the community care department. That individual would be tasked with developing staffing, organizational structure, job descriptions, operating policies and training and licensure requirements as well as coordinating with other city departments, forming an implementation advisory committee and pursuing emerging state and federal grants for their work.

There’s also funding set aside for a part-time administrative assistant to support the work of the project coordinator with additional resources, including $300,000 allotted for more data analysis, a recommended community needs assessment and other outside consulting support and studies as needed.

“Twenty-five years ago next month, the city embarked on a process to move emergency 911 dispatching duties away from sworn police officers and firefighters to civilian dispatchers based on the report of an appointed mayoral study committee made up of city residents, municipal staff and city councilors,” Narkewicz explained in his budget. “Despite successful models for unified civilian dispatch in many other locales, there were significant concerns expressed at the time by both residents and police and fire personnel that civilians would not have the necessary training or experience to manage these critical, life-or-death calls or that it would be duplicative and cost-inefficient to create a new, separate city agency.”

What began with initial budget funding, state grants and an administrator hired to plan and implement the concept, the mayor said, is now a 24/7 Public Safety Communications Center led and staffed by trained civilian dispatchers who are integrated in the city’s organizational structure.

“As Northampton embarks on a similar path toward creating a civilian response to mental health and drug use crises, houselessness and other issues needing ‘community care’ — as well as working on the other, longer-term recommendations of the NPRC — I am hopeful that we can do so with a spirit of shared purpose and collaboration among all stakeholders and across all city departments, including Chief Kasper and the dedicated women and men of the Northampton Police Department,” Narkewicz added.

In an interview with MassLive, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said she’s excited to learn more about and study the proposed community care department, noting how she’s been an advocate for more clinically trained individuals in the city being able to respond to mental health emergency.

“The Department of Community Care is something that certainly should be explored,” Kasper said last week prior to the submission of Narkewicz’s budget. “I have been a strong proponent and supporter of mental health resources in our community. Having clinicians go to the scene to help someone in a mental health crisis is crucial.”

“I’m a firm supporter of clinical responders going to scenes, and we go to a large number of scenes where people would be best served by a mental health specialist,” she added.

Kasper noted how creating the community care department doesn’t necessarily mean the agency should be funded using money from the Northampton Police Department. Her stance diverges from calls from many community members and activists that money cut from the Police Department’s budget last year be used to fund the community care agency and that law enforcement continue to be defunded in the city.

“Just because there’s overlap in the people we serve, doesn’t mean the money should come from the police department,” Kasper said. “It’s not going to reduce our crime calls. Of the roughly 30,000 calls we handle each year, many are crimes, victims calling for the police to come.”

The proposed funds for the new community care department fall several hundred-thousand dollars short of the nearly $883,000 that activists and the Policing Review Commission called for. The amount represents how much the Police Department’s initially proposed FY 2021 budget was cut by.

In its final report, the NPRC recommended the Department of Community Care be established by reinvesting the funds cut from the Police Department in 2020 “at a minimum.”

“We believe that the city should carefully evaluate the services and supports it believes as important, and should make sure the department is fully funded to respond and carry out those responsibilities,” the commission wrote in its report. “Funding allocations could also come from revenue generated by current policing practices including detail work. This money could be allocated specifically towards alternatives to policing, community care and programs and services which are proven to reduce crime.”

Last week, the City Council voted to endorse the recommendations of the Policing Review Commission. However, the legislative body didn’t specify how much money should be used to set up the community care department, only that it be funded with “a meaningful investment that would assure viability” this coming fiscal year.

During the council’s meeting earlier this month, Daniel Cannity, the chair of the commission, spoke as a resident concerned about public safety in the community.

“Northampton needs a well-funded Department of Community Care so they can begin to respond to crises and shift responsibilities away from police as soon as possible. This is something dozens of cities across the U.S. have done. Every time responsibilities are taken away from police, they result in better outcomes for all individuals concerned,” Cannity said.

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