In Northampton, it’s tough to be a police officer

Suspicions abound in one of the state’s most liberal bastions

ON A RECENT CALL for police assistance, Northampton Police Officer Adam Van Buskirk said a young boy saw him walking towards the building, shouted “fuck you,” and ran away. “When I started working here that would never have happened; now, things like that happen all the time,” said Van Buskirk.

Over the past 11 years, Van Buskirk and other veterans of the Northampton Police Department say, hostility towards police from a vocal minority of residents and public officials has increased. Police officials say harassing comments on the street and on social media, and heated public debates over police initiatives, have hurt morale and contributed to an uptick in younger officers leaving the department to work in other communities.

It’s part of a backlash against police in general, brought on by a surge of videos showing police using brutal force against citizens, particularly black people, and data indicating officers pull over people of color more often than whites during routine traffic stops. But many also see a local angle in Northampton.

A recent survey from the Cato Institute, a right-leaning think tank, found that trust of the police is lowest among young people, liberals, and people of color. As a college town with a reputation as being one of the most progressive communities in the state, Northampton is something of a crucible of these dynamics.

“The majority of the community supports us, but they are afraid to do so publicly because the vocal minority that is anti-police is so vocal that they could affect their business or, if they don’t own a business, could affect their personal life,” said Josh Wallace, the city’s school resource officer and the head of New England Police Benevolent Association, Local 186.

Wallace acknowledges community concerns about police officers are sometimes valid. “There are cops that break the law,” he said. “There are cops that shouldn’t be cops because of their personality. There are cops that give us all a bad name.” His department investigates all community complaints of police conduct to identify officers ill-suited for the work. But sometimes, he says, complaints are hypercritical or even false.  “This is the type of community in which every little thing you do is judged and put under the microscope and if there’s a way to make a big deal out of it, there is someone there to do that.”

Much of the backlash focuses on aspects of police work that many lay people don’t understand, according to Wallace. He said some people have assumed that the frequent use of the word “tactical” in police budgets and other documents refers to a militarization of the police.  “But every piece of equipment we use is tactical,” said Wallace, pointing to a leash attached to the department’s comfort dog, Douglas, who lies sleeping under the conference room table. “When we order anything, this leash, for example, we order a 6-foot tactical leash.”

Josh Wallace, the Northampton Police Department’s school resource officer, training Douglas, the department’s comfort dog. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

Wallace said the comfort dog is one of many programs that extend beyond law enforcement into the realm of social service.  Following a tragic domestic murder suicide in Northampton last year, the family’s orphaned children spent the day cuddling with Douglas.

While no one has spoken out against Douglas, a number of recent police initiatives in Northampton have hit a wall of opposition from residents and some elected officials.

A proposal to install surveillance cameras to curb crime downtown was criticized as unfairly targeting the most vulnerable community members, such as people of color and the homeless.

Police Chief Jody Kasper’s scheduled anti-terrorism training in Israel was scrapped last fall after a small group of residents and city councilwoman Alisa Klein protested that she might learn undesirable tactics from the Israelis, who have been accused of torturing detainees and interrogating children.

Another program called High Five Fridays, in which officers welcomed or “high-fived” children as they walked into school, was nixed two years ago when residents complained the presence of the officers might frighten children whose families have had negative encounters with police.

In December, there was a heated exchange among city councilors when the local Walmart decided to stop carrying ammunition and offered to give the police department its left-over inventory, which was worth $13,000. Several residents spoke out against the donation at the council meeting. Dana Goldblatt, a local attorney, decried the ammunition donation as a further investment in “violence workers” as opposed to social workers or teachers. Some residents even took their argument to the point of questioning the need for a police department in a city with a population of 29,000.

City councilors also raised concerns. Klein asked for a detailed accounting of each ammunition round in the donation, and questioned whether the value of the gift would be deducted from next year’s police budget. Her colleague, Bill Dwight, didn’t relish the idea that Walmart would get a federal tax break for the donation. As it turned out, he didn’t need to worry. Shortly after the televised meeting, Walmart rescinded its offer.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz pushed back on Klein’s questions as “anti-police rhetoric” that has contributed to chronic understaffing.  But Klein contends her questions were misinterpreted.  “I think it’s important to be able to ask questions and have a healthy debate on these issues,” she said, adding that she does not support the idea of getting rid of the police, nor does she believe they are “violence workers.”

Klein said she has yet to see any data from police department exit interviews linking community debate on Northamption Police initiatives and staff departures.

Kasper said there are a number of factors that have impacted the department’s ability to recruit and retain staff, but negative attitudes toward the police certainly don’t help. “Our officers walk down the street right now and get yelled at and sworn at and harassed by some people. Is it people’s First Amendment right to swear at them? Yeah. Is that a good work environment to be berated everyday? No, it’s not,” she said.

Northampton is not alone in its struggle to staff up. A 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the number of full-time sworn municipal police officers per 1,000 residents decreased from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 201, a decline of 11 percent.

When fully staffed, the Northampton Police Department has 50 officer positions, but the actual number of officers working in the community has hovered fairly consistently around 40 for the past decade. As a result, Kasper said, burnout is a challenge and another leading reason Northampton officers seek jobs elsewhere.

“When they’re calling the police, people don’t check to see what our staffing level is. They just call us and we go, so it’s a smaller number of officers responding to the same number of calls, which is high in this community, like we had 44,000 calls last year. It gets tiring after a while,” Kasper said.

Losing newer recruits to other communities is painful but understandable, Kasper said.  “People are motivated by different things,” she said. “Maybe you don’t mind doing a ton of work, or maybe you want to go to another agency, where you get paid usually a hair more and not do as much.”

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Officer recruitment has also been a challenge over the past decade, Kasper said, citing a lack of interest among millennials. Like many police departments across the Commonwealth, Northampton has compensated for the drop in applicants by opting out of the slow-moving civil service hiring process and not requiring a written exam, offered by the state every two years. Even so, hiring new recruits isn’t easy.

“People don’t want to be police officers anymore,” Kasper said.