I thought of that old saying last night after watching about an hour and a half’s worth of public comment before the City Council. The Corona virus has blown away many old customs and one of the casualties was the public comment session. God knows I have wasted many hours of my life getting aggravated about some issue, going down to the city council chambers, and talk at a bored and impatient council, who would be chafing at the bit wanting to get to their regular business so they could get to go home before midnight.
Well, the pandemic has swept the old away, and has given us Zoom, which enables you to talk to the council from the comfort of your own home. You can arrange a classy background. Hang up some prints, clean up any clutter and tell your roommates to stay out of view. You have your own microphone in your computer and the acoustics are perfect.
I sat and listened to these young people talk about their experiences with the Northampton Police, and after awhile I began to see the issue. If half of what they were saying was true, Northampton police have a culture of arrogance toward young people and minorities. Maybe they don’t mean to be arrogant, but just having that uniform and a gun and hanging around with other police will give you that attitude that they know better than you do what is going on and your concerns are most likely silly and trivial. The woman chief is a nice person and does what she can, but the rank and file are predominately male, and predominately into body building. They are aching, I think, to put someone down on the ground. The woman chief is political window dressing. It says that Northampton’s police are a gentle new age type of police. They aren’t.
My feeling is that the gun is an important issue in any reform. Guns should be locked up in a shift supervisor’s vehicle, and parceled out to police only in case of emergencies. Social workers and nurses go into scary situations without guns. Guarding the public safety means empathy. It means being smart about how to de-escalate issues. Maybe part of any orientation for police would be living for a couple weeks in a public housing unit.
A lot of the problem is boredom. We need to jettison the paramilitary structure. The cop’s life is not a happy one. You write out reports that go nowhere. You appear before the City Council, say nothing, and get your citation for bravery. You say “Yes sir” a lot. The chief talks to God, and God says this is the way things are.
I spent quite a bit of time as a social worker/organizer in Northampton public housing, and a lot of the problems that the police responded to were due to a generalized unhappiness with the conditions they were living under. The bad guys that lived in their neighborhood were never evicted. The bad conditions were often due to someone’s laziness and indifference. I’ve known a number of really good Northampton cops, but they are old-timers and now have retired. The poison pill is the State Police domination of training. They are turning out soldiers, not police.