Northampton Human Rights Commission raises racial issues, other concerns with Police Chief Jody Kasper

(Published in print: Thursday, November 19, 2015)

NORTHAMPTON — The city Police Department may begin to keep better statistics about the races of the people it detains, which was among the suggestions brought forward during a Human Rights Commission meeting Wednesday.

Reacting to nationwide incidents of racism involving police and community reaction, the Northampton Human Rights Commission scheduled the community meeting with Police Chief Jody Kasper and others from the department to discuss how to avoid such incidents in the city.

Kasper said she was eager to attend.

“I was glad that they called me a few weeks ago and asked members of our department to be here and actually thrilled,” she said. “It’s a conversation I’ve been wanting to have for a while.”

During the 90-minute meeting, attended by about 15 community members, Human Rights Commission members as well as residents asked questions and made suggestions to the police.

Natalia Muñoz, chairwoman of the committee, asked that residents and committee members focus on questions regarding police activity.

Committee member Laurie Loisel opened by asking about police in schools.

Kasper said that Northampton has had a police officer in the schools since 1985, and that the officer has all the standard equipment, including a gun, per department policy. All officers on duty carry their firearms at all times, she said.

Muñoz asked why the officer might be called into a classroom, referring to a video showing a deputy flipping a South Carolina high school student at her desk after she texted in class.

The school resource officer is assigned to the schools to speak with students who have broken the law, are struggling with mental health issues or who may need answers to certain questions, according to Kasper. She added that some examples might be that a student is found to be in possession of drugs or is feeling suicidal.

Member Carolyn Toll Oppenheim asked how the department is trained with regard to racial profiling and diversity.

Kasper said in the academies officers get four hours of cultural diversity training when they attend the police academy. “That’s not a lot of time,” she observed.

Kasper added that she has been looking into grants to get officers to a 12-hour training, but that overtime costs to do that for the entire 67-person department would be about $19,000. She has yet not found a grant to pay for that. “I just don’t have that in my training budget,” she said.

Several committee and community members asked how Kasper tracks the race of people stopped by officers in traffic or on the street. Some suggested reporting those statistics. Human Rights Committee member Douglas Ross suggesting police giving people they stop the option of getting written proof about the encounter.

Following the meeting Kasper said she would explore ways her department could better document statistics related to race.

One suggestion Kasper seemed reluctant to follow was allowing outside agencies to perform investigations regarding complaints about members of the department. She explained that the department performs its own internal investigations when it receives complaints.

“It does sound like you are just investigating yourselves,” Muñoz said. “Even though it is legitimate, it doesn’t feel legitimate.”

Kasper responded that she would have to protect the privacy of officers.

“If we had an outside board come in, what types of cases would qualify?” Kasper said. “Would it be all of our internals? That doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Kasper continued that the Northampton Police Department, as an accredited department, follows national best practices surrounding complaints.

Human Rights Commission members and audience members commented that there should be more transparency of how to appeal the result of such an investigation.

Muñoz said she was pleased with the meeting and that the process will continue.

“I think it was a great conversation and we will follow up on it with the police department, with the police chief,” she said after the meeting. “It was done in the spirit of collaboration, of community, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at