Getting everyone on same team in Northampton

Chief Jody Kasper says police can’t be defensive anymore

Jody Kasper, chief of the Northampton Police Department, is always looking for ways for her officers to better connect with the community they serve.

She launched a program called High Five Fridays in December, where police officers would line the sidewalks leading to elementary schools in Northampton and high five students as they arrived for classes. It was designed to show the children that police officers were friendly, supportive, and on their side.

Most of the kids and their parents liked the program, but Kasper heard from some parents that their children were uncomfortable with the police presence, so she huddled with school officials and canceled the program earlier this month. That prompted a backlash from citizens who were sorry to see it go, and put Northampton in a national media spotlight.

High Five Fridays is one of many initiatives Kasper has launched to build greater trust with the community. Under her leadership, for example, Northampton became the first police department in Massachusetts to sign up for the Police Data Initiative, an effort by the Obama administration to improve trust between police departments and their communities.  By publicly releasing data on staff diversity, demographics of traffic stops, and use of force, citizens can see for themselves whether racial profiling is a problem and whether their police force represents the diversity of their community.

Kasper became chief in 2015 after serving as an officer in Northampton for nearly two decades. CommonWealth sat down to talk with her about her outreach efforts at her downtown office.


COMMONWEALTH: When did your department get involved with the Police Data Initiative?

JODY KASPER: It was March or April of last year, in the midst of this rift between us and our citizens – certain citizens more than others. The black community, that’s a group we’ve come under criticism for, not specifically our agency, but policing in general. And rightfully so. We’ve earned that to a certain extent. When I learned about the Police Data Initiative, I though this is an interesting way to work on rebuilding and strengthening relationships with all members of our community by being a little bit brave and pulling back the curtain and showing what a great job we’re doing. And if we’re not doing a great job somewhere, it’s an opportunity for us to figure that out and address it. This is where we need to be. We need to be in a constant self-assessment phase and a measurement phase. One of the general tenets of policing historically is to be very protective of each other even when we’re wrong. I understand historically why we were there, but that’s not something we can do anymore.

CW: How did people on your force react to the initiative?

KASPER: My approach to the team was to have a collaboration between citizens and police to talk about the different types of information we wanted to put out to the public. The team would create a data table, then I would post it inside the building, and send out an email and say, hey, we’re going to release this information to the public. If you have any feedback, let me know. A few people said, oh, that’s really interesting, I didn’t know that. But I didn’t hear any brushback.

CW: What have you learned from these data sets?

KASPER: You see trends. The first thing I do every day when I come in is read the log from the night before. When you do that, you’re reading one day’s log. But when you parcel out all drug overdoses for example, and you put them on a table, you start to see trends. The number of doses of Narcan we have to give someone to revive them has gone up, that’s a trend. When we first got Narcan, one dose would probably bring most people back, but now you can see it’s two, three, or four doses we have to give.  We’re now facing fentanyl, carfentanil, and different doses and mixtures of drugs. People who have serious addictions are taking large amounts of these stronger drugs.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

CW: Is there anything you see in the data that was a real shocker for you?

KASPER: I’m not shocked by much. The data accurately reflects what I see in our building every day, people doing a good job. But there are certainly areas we can improve in, too. Certainly our employee demographics show diversity, or lack thereof.  We’re mostly white men. We’re mostly a white community. That’s one of my department goals – to work on diversifying our staff. And I’d love to recruit more women. Even though I’ve been in the field a long time, I still am an outsider in policing. When I go to chiefs meetings in western Massachusetts, I’m the only female in a room of 40 people. That’s helpful to me. It makes me think about inclusiveness and equality. As a female leader, my perspective as a minority within my workplace is something I bring with me. I’m pretty thoughtful about any employees I have that may feel different for whatever reason.

CW: Do you think women police bring something different to the table?

KASPER: I don’t like to stereotype and say that all women do X and all men do Y. But in general, the women that I’ve worked with tend to have an interest in and spend more time talking with people on a call. That’s not true for everyone certainly. There are men officers in this department that are absolutely fantastic in this area, as well.

CW: You mentioned the data highlights community problems. What are the major issues they reveal in Northampton?

KASPER: Substance abuse – drug and alcohol – is huge. It’s at the root of a lot of what we’re seeing out there. We have so many impaired operators on our roads. We have people overdosing on heroin. We’ve got people engaged in shoplifting to support their addiction. We have a lot of people with mental health issues, a lot of people who are homeless. As a police leader, I have other concerns – our connection with our citizens and our youth. Use of force, that’s a big one.  I feel a department is doing a great job until one incident happens one day and all of a sudden everything that people thought they knew about your agency is questioned. Policing is challenging right now.  There’s a lot we’re dealing with, a lot of new challenges.

CW: What are some of those challenges?

KASPER: The way that people parent and the way they communicate with us are changing.  When I started this job, if we dealt with a 14-year-old kid who was doing something wrong, we’d bring them here, call the parents, and we could trust that the parents would work with us to try to rectify the situation. Now, 10 years, 20 years later, the parents come down and yell at us, you illegally searched my kid or you’re violating their rights. So you teach that to kids, you teach this lack of responsibility for what they did, you role model disrespect to authority.

CW: Do you think that scenario reflects a lack of trust between the community and the police?

KASPER: It’s the lack of trust and it’s the lack of community approach to raising the next generation together. It takes all of us, but we’re not on the same team anymore.

CW: It also speaks to that rift that you were talking about before, the idea some people have that police are the enemy.

KASPER: Right, we’re up to no good. It’s weird. Everyone in this building, we have families and children and dogs and we like to ski and camp and hike. We’re committed to our community, we’re committed to doing the best job we can. Do we make mistakes?  Sure thing, just like everyone else does. And when we do make mistakes, hopefully we own up to them, just like everyone should and we’ll try to not make that mistake again. That’s the lesson we try to role model for our community. We need to be able to accept responsibility for what we did – not deny, not hide.

CW: What advice would you give to departments in Massachusetts that haven’t either thought about the Police Data Initiative or haven’t gotten going with it yet?

KASPER: It’s not that hard to do. We’ve released a lot of data tables, but you don’t have to. The Police Data Initiative requires you to release, three but those three could be very easy ones. You could just do officer-involved shootings, which for us is zero or and would be a low number in many communities. Release your employee demographics, and pick something else. Start there and see how it feels. It’s not just releasing information that you’re scared about. It is an opportunity to release information you want to highlight about what you’re doing. We have a table for community outreach activities. You can see where all the different officers are, what type of program we’re doing. That’s a great thing to release, right? What I caution citizens about is, if you’re in a community where your police department is beginning to release data and open that door, and if you see in the data something that’s concerning, feel free to share your ideas. But give people in police departments the opportunity and time to fix it.

CW: I looked at the sites of other police departments participating in the initiative. Some of them have released so little data, it doesn’t really seem like they’re opening a door.

KASPER: It’s a small opening, because historically that door has been very much locked. People don’t want to be criticized, but were not in a world where we can be defensive any more.  If people have criticisms, you gotta’ hear them.  Sometimes people are wrong. But sometimes people say something and I’m like, God, you know that’s true. A great example of that happened when I was invited to go before our human rights commission.  We were releasing data about the demographics of motor vehicle operators. We were only releasing data about people we had issued citations to, but they asked, well, what about the people you pulled over that you just gave a verbal warning to, where’s that data? Now, that’s really fair. I know why it’s not collected because we collect our race data from the citation entry, so if there is no citation entry we don’t have a record of who the driver was. I was able to hear that because it was very thoughtfully brought up. What if we’re pulling over a lot more people of color and the officers are releasing them because they don’t want it to be a statistic?

CW: Or the opposite, they let the white people go without a ticket.

KASPER: Right, exactly. So you’ve got a data set with 7,000 car stops and we’re only printing information about 5,000 of them. How can I sit here and say, oh I don’t have a problem with racial profiling in my department because 2,000 people are not being counted.  We haven’t had any complaints about racial profiling.  However, if I can’t provide the data to support what I think is going on, then there’s a hole and it leaves room for interpretation.  Nobody likes room for interpretation. When there’s a hole and you can fill it in with misinformation, that’s how rumors, that’s how horrible things get spread. So, we came back and figured out a way to improve reporting on verbal warnings. We release information, the community gives us reasonable, thoughtful feedback and gives us an opportunity to respond. Ideally, that’s how this whole thing works.

CW: What I hear you saying is that improving police-community relations is a two way street.

KASPER: It is a two way street. Just having conflict, just yelling at each other doesn’t get anyone anywhere. That’s what is really difficult about some of the use-of-force videos that are out there and the way social media works. Use-of-force videos come out, and people with no understanding of the police use-of-force continuum, are like, oh my god, that’s terrible. Sometimes police officers have totally been in the wrong, but not everyone. And here’s the thing about use-of-force videos, whether the force was right or wrong or whether the force was a reasonable level, they’re awful to watch. Nobody wants to watch someone get shot or get sprayed or get kicked or get punched. People forget that we have all this stuff on our belt for a reason.  People hit us and kick at us. We’ve had guns pulled on us and knives pulled on us, even in this nice community. One of our officers just the other night did a car stop, pulled a gun out of the car – a stolen gun with a filed-off serial number – that could have been his last shift. And for every video you’ve seen of an officer shooting someone, we’ve seen videos at our police academy and ongoing training of officers being shot. It’s totally unexpected, the officer walks up to the car for a speeding violation or whatever and the person just shoots them. You hear them die, they have their microphone on, it’s awful. So when we walk up to a car, it’s a little nerve-wracking. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. I get that if you’re the driver in the car, you’ve seen all those other videos and you may not know what’s going to happen. You may fear that the officer is going to do something to you.  I understand where we all are, everyone’s on edge.  It’s difficult.

CW: What are some of the other ways in which you are trying to improve police and community relations?

KASPER: We have the Park and Walk program. Instead of driving around with their windows closed, our officers park downtown, walk around, and talk with people. It’s good for our officers to interact with members of our community, good for members of our community to interact with our officers, it’s hopefully a positive interaction. For many people, their interactions with police are historically negative because they’re getting a ticket or something bad has happened. We also have the Northampton Police Day. We do face painting, people can go through cruisers, look at the different weapons we have. There’s food and fun, so it’s just a day to get to know us a little bit.

CW: How did you feel about the concerns voiced by school committee members and others around High Five Fridays that some children may be afraid of the officers – particularly nonwhite or immigrant kids, or those who may have had negative experiences when police dealt with a crises at their house?

KASPER:  When I heard their concerns, I thought I want to learn more about that. My child is white and loves the police so, based on my own experiences, I never thought we would be perceived by children in a negative way at the schools.

CW: Were there some parents whose children were actually afraid of the officers or were the concerns that were raised hypothetical?

KASPER: Most parents we heard from liked the program.  But there were others who said their child was afraid and they went in another way or at a different time to avoid them. Some of the concerns raised by school staff and school committee members focused on the fact that parents who might be most uncomfortable, people who are immigrants or who have had the police out to their homes, are less likely to speak up about it.  

CW: So, you canceled the program because you didn’t want any child to feel uncomfortable, but then you got attacked for caving in?

KASPER: Yeah, I got a lot of emails and voice messages, a dark comment thread on our Facebook page saying you guys are terrible, you’re a bunch of quitters. We have absolutely no intention of sending our officers into an outreach situation where there may be even one, two, or three children who are frightened by them. That’s not what the program is about.

CW: Are you going to keep doing outreach to children?

KASPER: You bet we are. We have already set up meetings with the school superintendent and staff to talk about the concerns with High Five Friday and where do we go from here.  We want to do this but we want to do it in the best way for all the kids.

Meet the Author
CW: Isn’t that what you referred to earlier with the Police Data Initiative, that you want to be in a constant measurement and assessment phase, taking in feedback from data tables, or in this case, parents and school staff, and adjusting your practice to make it better?

KASPER:  Absolutely. Effective program implementation involves assessment and if necessary, modification. In the case of High Five Fridays, people thoughtfully offered a variety of feedback including modifying the program or implementing other methods of youth engagement. Effective leaders take feedback and work with it to determine of it has value and if adjustments should be made.