|Closer Look: Williamstown Residents Beginning Call to 'Defund' Police|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
03:55AM / Tuesday, June 30, 2020
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Monday's Select Board meeting marked the first time a resident has used the platform of a public meeting to make a call to defund the police.
And it probably will not be the last.
The "defund police" movement has gained momentum nationwide in the weeks following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Floyd is one of a long line of Black Americans who have been killed by white police officers and held up as examples of what many believe is pervasive racism in the law enforcement community.
Tashi Rai, a rising junior at Mount Greylock Regional School, was one of more than a dozen voices calling for change during last Monday's meeting and the one who made the most direct call to defund the Williamstown Police Department.
"You are in the position to review the workings of this town, and especially review the budget," Rai said. "That's why I would like to request that you review the town budget, possibly solely the police budget, before the start of the next fiscal year, starting in July. The police budget in our town is currently upwards of $1.19 million. The planned budget for the 20-21 fiscal year pushes it even further, increasing funding by $50,000 more. And all of this is on top of over $300,000 that the town pays back in loans every year due to a $5 million police station built in 2019.
"The [police] department continues to operate with very little oversight and almost no transparency. … With Black Lives Matter uprisings across the nation and across the Berkshires and in our town and budget decreases in Northampton and other towns in Massachusetts, the case has never been clearer to revisit our police budget and focus on putting our money where our words are and defending a system of oppression in this community. I would really like you all to consider the practical implications of the Black Lives Matter movement, take steps to reallocate priorities in our community and push for a police budget review before next month."
A number of subsequent speakers who addressed the board pointed to Rai as an example of the kind of voice that town officials need to hear.
And hers likely will be one of many voices telling town officials to defund the police in the weeks and months ahead.
That makes this a good time to look a little bit more closely at the town's police budget and what exactly defunding the police would mean.
How transparent is the police budget?
Like all town finances, the WPD budget is presented to the town's Finance Committee, made up of eight volunteers appointed by the town moderator, on an annual basis.
And Rai's figures were correct. The budget submitted for review this winter is up by $52,867.68 from the fiscal year 2020 budget, an increase of 4.4 percent to $1,243,246.95.
Nearly half of that increase — $25,649.84 — comes from increased wages, which include cost of living increases and are mostly subject to collective bargaining agreements between the town and the union representing officers.
As part of the town budget, the police budget is subject to a vote at the annual town meeting, where voters have the final say on how much money the town raises and appropriates from property taxes.
That said, voters do not consider the police line item, per se, or any other line in the town's operations. Rather they are asked to approve an omnibus budget for town operations.
Technically, the only "defund" vote at annual town meeting that would be binding on the town would be to vote down the entire operations budget, which includes Town Hall, the Department of Public Works, the town library, etc.
But Town Manager Jason Hoch this week said even town meeting votes that are not binding still carry weight.
"Practically, the ask at town meeting that refers to a line item may not be formally binding, but there is a reasonable political expectation that the wishes of the meeting be followed if there is a specific purpose," Hoch wrote in response to an inquiry on the topic.
Does Williamstown spend too much on its police department?
"Too much" is a measure that each resident has the right to judge for herself or himself.
One way to approach the question is to compare Williamstown's police budget to that of like communities, and, in that respect, it appears to be relatively in line.
The towns on the chart accompanying this story were taken from a list of a dozen municipalities used by the town's 2015 Economic Development Committee as peers for Williamstown "based on their small size and being somewhat to very remote." The EDC included towns as far away as North Carolina and Ohio; the four New England towns are included here.
For purposes of the chart, only non-education spending was included because school financing models vary widely from state to state, even within New England. And it is worth noting that not all of the municipalities do as Williamstown does and break out spending for debt service into an easily compartmentalized category apart from its "general operations." Had Williamstown's $719,000 FY20 appropriation for debt service been included as part of its "General Government" (Article 5 on the town meeting warrant), the police department's share of the budget would have been more like 13 percent.
It would take a CPA to dive into the minutiae of various town budgets and parse out how each accounts for expenses funded by user fees (like water and sewer services) versus those funded by property taxes. So that, too, makes true comparisons across town and state lines a bit murky.
Also, it is worth noting that the two municipalities with the highest per capita spending for police are Lenox and Peterborough, N.H. Those also are the only two towns that do not have a college within its borders; in college towns, a significant portion of the population receives at least some of the services associated with law enforcement from campus security.
The bottom line is that it is hard to avoid apples-to-oranges fallacies with any comparison across municipal budgets in different communities. But given that disclaimer, Williamstown appears to spend on law enforcement about the same percentage or arguably a lower percentage than communities it regards as peers.
And even though education spending was left out of the town-to-town comparison, it still consumes more local tax dollars than the rest of the town budget. The same May 2019 town meeting that approved $8.2 million for the General Government warrant article approved $12.4 million between the Mount Greylock Regional School and Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School districts. An "all in" approach to municipal spending that includes town operations, debt service and education spending, the denominator jumps to $21.3 million, and the police department's $1.2 million budget falls to 5.6 percent.
But, again, the "proper" level of spending is in the eye of the beholder. A resident who believes Williamstown is overpoliced very well could have the same opinion if transplanted to one of the communities on the chart.
Are Williamstown's police officers well trained?
Much has been made in the national discourse in the weeks since Minneapolis about the level of training that police officers receive.
Bay State residents can take some solace from the fact that police officers in the commonwealth are more trained than law enforcement in most states.
The California-based non-profit Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform publishes a report card for training requirements in all 50 states. The national average for basic training hours is 656 hours; Massachusetts requires 812. The commonwealth also requires 40 hours of in-service training per year for officers; the national average is 23 hours.
And Williamstown Police Chief Kyle Johnson told attendees at a June 3 "Coffee with a Cop" webinar that at least eight hours out of those 40 each year are spent learning de-escalation techniques.
Asked by an attendee if that was enough time, Johnson replied, "I understand your concern. As human beings, we can always do better.
"The 40 hours is mandated, but we also try to do additional trainings not required by the [commonwealth]," Johnson said. "A lot of that is online, which makes it more accessible to us. Not long ago, we had to drive to the police academy to get any training. The technology is working in our favor."
"We practice de-escalation techniques every day," Police Lt. Mike Ziemba added. "We try to bring calm and neutrality and open-mindedness to every dispute we have. It's kind of built into the job, actually."
While violent crime is not common in the college town of 7,700, the de-escalation training might be credited for this stat: Since 2004, when Johnson was installed as chief, no Williamstown police officer has fired his or her weapon in the line of duty except when dealing with a sick or injured animal.
What would it mean to defund the police?
It means different things to different people. In the most extreme, it is a call to abolish all law enforcement and concentrate the funds previously spent on police into social programs that address the root causes of crime, like poverty and drug addiction.
But that radical view appears to be held by a minority of those espousing "defund police" at the moment.
More moderate defund efforts focus on redirecting a portion of that law enforcement budget to social services programs.
The various branches of the defund movement share this belief in common: Past calls to reform police — like after the beating of Rodney King (1991), and the deaths Aiyana Stanley-Jones (2010), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Eric Garner (2014) and Freddie Gray (2015) — have changed nothing.
To date, at least two Berkshire County towns have heard calls to defund the police that fall on the more moderate end of the movement's spectrum. According to the Berkshire Edge, a motion to trim $200,000 from the $1.7 million Great Barrington police budget (11.6 percent) was defeated by a margin of 132-75 at the annual town meeting. The Berkshire Eagle reported that Egremont voters defeated "a motion to amend the budget and cut police funding."
Nationally, even the most radical high-profile examples of successful "defund police" efforts — Camden, N.J., and Minneapolis — do not necessarily mean a world without law enforcement of any kind.
The southern New Jersey city dissolved its police force in 2013 but replaced it with a county police force. Though praised for its efforts since to focus on community policing (many Camden officers marched with protesters after George Floyd's death), at least one community group, "Camden, We Choose," has argued in recent weeks that reforms have not gone far enough because, among other things, officers are not required to live in the community.
And while the Minneapolis City Council this month voted to dismantle the city's police department, even that plan contemplates, the "creation of a new City Department of Community Safety."
Do police do more than enforce the law?
Less drastic reforms aimed at changing the way police respond to their community's needs is the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team or, RIGHT Care program implemented by the Dallas, Texas, police, which teams law enforcement officers with paramedics and behavioral health professionals to respond to calls.
Dallas began RIGHT Care as a three-year pilot program in 2018, and it appears to have been a success. The city manager has asked the city council to expand the program starting in October of this year.
Williamstown officials appear to be open to a dialogue about incorporating more social services personnel into the WPD's day-to-day response, but that would come at a cost.
"I look enviously, in some cases, at larger cities that might have a lot more other service functions across government, where shifting dollars away from a department — one to the other — and saying, 'This is not a place where we need police as the first responder,' " Town Manager Jason Hoch said in the June 17 Coffee with a Cop webinar. "We don't necessarily have that luxury. Great example … We would prefer to not be the first responder in so many mental health cases. That's a challenge. And, let's face it, a fully-equipped officer coming in in a lot of those times of stress is probably not the first way to de-escalate the situation.
"Our guys do a great job … but that's not the core responsibility [of police]. At the moment, the resources don't exist within the region, the county or, arguably, the state, for a small town to be able to have a social/mental health type first responder that gets us out of being in that role."
The police officials on the June 17 call with Hoch said police are the first responders on calls for people with mental health issues, but they are not themselves mental health workers.
"We respond to many, many, many mental health scenarios, and while we receive training in mental health, to recognize it, the only tool in our tool box is to get the person to a hospital to see a professional, to figure out if it is a mental health crisis," Johnson said. "The [cases] that are crimes, in most cases, there aren't even charges because we recognize it is a mental health issue, even if, when they get to the hospital, [doctors] say, 'No, they don't meet the criteria to hold them to evaluate them.'
"People think, 'The police, you can fix this.' We really don't have any tools other than mental health involuntary committal or court. … There are times when we have to use the court because they can impose sanctions to get somebody help when the other avenue fails us."
Hoch said the WPD is "at the tail end of a systemic breakdown" where area residents in need of mental health services are not adequately served.
Ziemba said social workers alone cannot take the place of a trained and equipped police officer.
"The people who seek help voluntarily, that's great, they can go work with this professional," he said. "The ones that don't go voluntarily, and we get the call from the Brien Center that we have to force them to go because they're having a crisis, a regular social worker can't handle that because they're not police officers. They're not trained or equipped to go hands-on, where we are. Or, no one knows about this breakdown until the neighbors are calling and saying this person is smashing the windows out of his house and going crazy.
"The mental health professional could never replace us, and we could never replace them."