Somerville Policing: Policy & Budget Update

SPD_budget_growth_2011-2020.jpg

Somerville Police Dept. budget growth 2011 to 2020, compared with inflation

In this issue:

  • The Mayor and the City Council are planning major steps to reform the Somerville Police Department (SPD) and to begin reimagining policing in Somerville
  • FY 2021 budget -- City Council cut $742,000 (4.4%) from the FY 2020 SPD budget, on top of Mayor Curtatone’s cut of $550,000 (3.3%) for a total cut of $1,292,000 (7.7%)                                                  

* * * * * * * * *

Introduction

This newsletter recaps the discussion over the past two months about policing in Somerville and the Somerville Police Department (SPD).  It describes some of the steps the City Council and the Administration have taken and committed to for the coming year.  And it reports on the Council’s discussions regarding cutting the FY 2021 SPD budget.

This is all a response to the Black Lives Matter and “defund the police” movements involving millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest racial injustice.  What’s happening here in Somerville is the result of mobilization, activism, and demands for change from thousands of Somerville residents, and especially from those who are most affected by police violence -Black people and People of Color.  I am grateful for the many people who have been demonstrating, crying out, organizing, and working for change.  

We received a petition signed by over 4,000 residents calling upon the City to defund the police.  We received a petition signed by over 3,000 people (but many of them not Somerville residents) supporting the SPD.  We have received hundreds and hundreds of emails, almost all of them calling upon the City to defund the police budget by 60% -- and no less than 10% -- and to reallocate the funds for non-police public safety services and programs to help needy residents.  At the public hearing on the FY 2021 budget 150 people testified for six hours.  Almost all the testimony was about cutting the SPD budget.  The Council then spent ten hours over three meetings in late June and July questioning the Mayor and the Chief of Police, and discussing and voting on cuts to the SPD budget.

(Note: The City Council does not have legal power to allocate any funds for expenditure, that is solely up to the Mayor.  The Council can only cut the budget.)

Earlier this year nobody expected this outcry about policing in Somerville and the SPD budget.   Last year, in June 2019, I proposed a $600,000 cut in the SPD budget.  There were no public testimony, emails, or petitions; no public interest at all.  (I would have asked for larger cuts had I thought there was any chance.)  Only one other Councilor, JT Scott, voted with me; that motion failed 9-2.  We ended up cutting $160,000.  That cut – and the larger ones I proposed this year -- were not intended to change policy or reform the SPD.  My goal was just to cut some of the fat in the SPD budget.

The City Council and Mayor did cut the SPD budget this year by 7.7%.  But that is not what is most important.  The Mayor and most Councilors have made explicit commitments to major reforms in how the SPD operates, put funds in the budget, and developed a plan and timeline for working with the community on reimagining and restructuring how policing is to be done in Somerville.  Mayor Curtatone and Councilors Davis, Scott and Mbah, in particular, have put forward detailed plans for both process and substance toward these changes. 

If we elected officials fulfill these commitments, we will see significant changes in the SPD and in how policing is done in Somerville.  The scope of some of the proposed changes is so large that implementation will likely take 3-5 years – if the political will continues to exist.   Continued constituent advocacy will hold our feet to the fire, so please keep it up!

(If you are interested in the overall City budget, you can see it, as well as the Mayor’s presentation, here: https://www.somervillema.gov/fy21budget )

The Mayor and the City Council are planning major steps to reform the Somerville Police Department (SPD) and to begin reimagining policing in Somerville

I, and I believe most Councilors, have spent hundreds of hours over the past two months listening to and talking with community members, reading emails and reports, and discussing police reform and restructuring.  We have heard calls and proposals to restructure the SPD and change policing in Somerville.  We will be looking at what that would mean operationally.

While I favor many of these proposals, the details matter and need to be worked through carefully in order to implement effective reforms and restructuring.  This will take some time, but I hope that over the next year, the City can begin to make changes in how we do policing.  I expect that the FY 2022 police budget will look different from the one the Council has approved for this year.

The Council has already made changes in the past 2 ½ years in how we deal with police issues in Somerville.  You can find a summary of those changes, “Work that we have done to increase accountability and transparency around policing,” in Ward 3 Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen’s June 14th newsletter, https://mailchi.mp/c2d2a40b9107/ward-3-newsletter-june-14-2020-policing-and-accountability-in-somerville

Here are a few of the proposals for major change that I expect will be seriously considered:

  • A civilian review board with real power to oversee the police and investigate allegations of police brutality and misbehavior.
  • An ordinance to ban racial profiling.
  • Changes to the 911 dispatch system which might transfer it from the Police Department, with some calls to be responded to by a team of EMTs, mental health workers, social workers, youth workers, drug counselors or others with more professional expertise in helping people in trouble than police officers have.  
  • A proposal from 40 social workers, psychologists, and mental health counselors in Somerville to establish such a team outside of the SPD to respond to people in crisis in a more effective way than an armed police officer can.
  • Body cameras on all police officers: The Mayor has been trying to implement body cameras on police officers in negotiations with the two Somerville police unions for five years.  

There are, in addition, many important proposals in the State Legislature relating to police.   The City does not have authority over these policies.  Some of them are:

  • ending police officer immunity from prosecution;
  • certification of all police officers and decertification when abuses have been committed;
  • appointing a special prosecutor in cases of alleged police brutality or criminal activity;
  • changing civil service procedures by which police officers are hired;
  • reforming the process by which state bodies arbitrate City and union contract negotiations when an impasse is reached.

The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus released a “Ten-Point Plan to Address Police Violence and Advance Racial Justice,”  see : https://www.mablacklatinocaucus.com/our-work/mbllc-and-other-elected-officials-of-color-call-for-reforms-in-the-wake-of-anti-police-brutality-protests

The Administration’s and the Council’s response

While I wish that the Mayor had cut more than 3.3% from the SPD budget, the Administration has been responsive to the community’s calls for change.  (I also wish the Council would have cut more than 4.4% from the SPD budget; see discussion below.)   The Administration has taken a series of major steps and budgeted $1,250,000 to discuss with the community and plan changes in policing in Somerville.  The Council has supported all of this, in some cases pushing to go further and faster.

Both the Administration and the Council have insisted that Black people, People of Color and those who are “closest to the pain” will be consulted and have a seat at the table.  A full $1 million of the funds in the Mayor’s Racial and Social Justice Project (RSJ) has been reserved to be spent on community  involvement in the decision-making process and for initiatives to be determined by the Director of Racial and Social Justice, working especially with “those groups most impacted by systemic racism and social inequality.”   At Councilor Davis’s urging, the Mayor has agreed to put $250,000 into the City Council’s budget to pay for public involvement and meetings.  This sum may seem large, but there will be many unusual costs in holding public meetings due to Covid-19.  Virtual meetings are unlikely to engage a true representation and cross-section of the community.

Let me review some of the steps the Mayor has taken.  On June 3 he declared that “systemic racism is a public health and safety emergency” and issued a 10-point policy plan -- a major step forward.   (See https://www.somervillema.gov/policereform)  Soon after, the SPD adopted all “8 Can’t Wait” policies advocated by Campaign Zero and the Mayor signed the Obama Foundation pledge to address police use of force.   

On June 29, the Mayor unveiled the Racial and Social Justice Project (RSJ) initiative with a Director who reports directly to the Mayor:  “Under the coordination of the RSJ Director, these funds will provide for a community-led effort to reimagine policing in Somerville, establish civilian oversight of the police department, and identify new investments to dismantle systemic racism and social injustice.”  For a description of the Racial and Social Justice Project, see: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Communication.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=3191&MediaPosition=&ID=2396&CssClass=

On July 7, the City Council received a memo, “FY21 General Fund budget update: reinvesting funding from Police Department cuts,” describing how the $742,000 that the Council cut from the SPD budget will be used to address critical needs in Somerville.   The Mayor proposed, and the Council will likely approve, adding staff and funding to the Office of Housing Stability, two bilingual social workers and a Clinical Youth Specialist in Health and Human Services, and desperately needed funds to help people with rent, food, transportation, and jobs. 

The memo states, “COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic racism and social injustice in our country. The most vulnerable members of our community before the pandemic are now those most susceptible to the health and economic impacts of the crisis… In addition to transferring an additional $250,000 to the Racial and Social Justice Fund…the revised budget will include several critical investments to address long-standing needs in our community that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 public health and economic crises.” See http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Communication.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=3188&MediaPosition=&ID=2389&CssClass=

Over the past two months, there has been a great deal of public discussion about the performance of the SPD and its relationship with the community.  I worked in the SPD half-time from 1995-1998 as the Grant Manager.  I know many current and former SPD officers, some of them for 25 years.  I value these relationships.  When I worked in the SPD it was commonly referred to as the “House of Hate” -- by the police officers themselves!  That phrase actually appeared in print as a headline in the Somerville Journal.  The SPD was a deeply troubled and dysfunctional organization then.  There has been tremendous change and improvement since then; Mayor Curtatone and current Chief David Fallon deserve major credit for many of those changes.   

But the SPD still has a ways to go to become what many in the community expect it to be.  I must acknowledge that my understanding of the nature and extent of problems with the SPD’s relationship to the community have been influenced by the emails I have read and especially the testimony that I have heard over the past two months.  Many more people than I had realized, especially Black people,  People of Color and immigrants, have been mistreated by SPD officers for  years. 

I continue to believe that the vast majority of SPD officers perform their jobs decently, legally and with compassion.  I respect and appreciate our police officers.  The officers who are out on our streets 24/7/365 responding to calls for help and distress face the possibility of injury or death every day they go to work.  The stress they endure in their job does physical and emotional damage to them and their families.  Theirs is a hard job.  Many of them are extremely well paid, but they make big sacrifices in performing their duties.

Police misconduct and violence are serious problems that need to be addressed more forcefully than they have been.  The Mayor’s proposal to transfer investigation and discipline for police officer misconduct from the SPD to an independent entity is a step the City needs to take as soon as possible. 

Another big problem is that the mission of the SPD no longer fits the problems in our City. The huge amount of money -- $17 million -- we spend on the SPD could be used in ways that would have a far more positive impact on our community. 

The data on calls for service show that around 90% of the calls that SPD officers go to are not crimes and are not violent.  Many of these calls could be dealt with by unarmed responders, and could be better dealt with by professionals with different backgrounds and training than police officers have.  And these professionals would cost a lot less than sworn police officers do, so we could get more of them for the funds that we budget for public safety.

Index crime in Somerville declined 69% between 1987 and 2018.  During that same period the number of police officers declined by only 15%.  We spend way more money on the police than is necessary to assure public safety in Somerville.  Funds are desperately needed to help people in need.  This is even  truer now with the Covid-19 recession, job losses, poverty and threat of eviction and homelessness that many of the most vulnerable people in Somerville are facing. 

SPD_budget_compared_to_other_programs.jpg

Somerville Police budget compared to other public good programs combined

FY 2021 budget -- City Council cut $742,000 (4.4%) from the FY 2020 SPD budget, on top of Mayor Curtatone’s cut of $550,000 (3.3%) for a total cut of $1,292,000 (7.7%)                                              

The City Council discussed and voted on cuts in the SPD budget in three meetings for 10 hours.  On June 29, Councilor JT Scott presented a proposal for what a radically reconceived police department cut by 60% might look like, and how the funds cut from the SPD budget could be utilized to provide public safety response and services.  His memo, titled “Reflections on the Demands of #DefundSPD,” is here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Communication.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=3183&MediaPosition=&ID=2386&CssClass=

I praised Councilor Scott’s proposal as a serious and worthy “thought experiment.”  I  said we need this kind of concrete and detailed attempt to lay out how to restructure public safety in order to move forward.  However, I do not believe it is feasible to cut any large City department’s budget by 60% with only a few weeks’ discussion and planning.  Nor is it possible to establish new City departments, staff them, and get them operational in a few months’ time.   

Before this meeting, I also sent a memo to the Council and Administration.  My memo proposed a $2.1 million dollar cut (12.5%) in the $17 million SPD budget.  You can see my memo and the detailed budget cuts I suggested here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Communication.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=3183&MediaPosition=&ID=2387&CssClass=

At the June 29 meeting, the Council discussed the salaries line item in the SPD budget, which includes the 130 sworn officers and 16 civilians in the SPD.  36 (38%) of the sworn officers are superior officers, supervisors, making at least $100,000 a year.  A little top-heavy, in my opinion. My memo suggested a $1.8 million dollar cut in salaries, most of it by cutting nine superior officers, and six vacant patrol officer positions.  After I presented these cuts there were a lot of questions, objections and concerns from Councilors.  It was clear that there would not be even close to a majority supporting cuts of that magnitude.  So I proposed an alternative set of cuts of about $1.2 million -- $593,000 in funds likely to be unspent by SPD at the end of the fiscal year (the average unspent from the last four years’ budgets), $196,500 by cutting one of the two Deputy Chief positions (a non-union position and one Deputy Chief is planning to retire in the coming year), and $390,000 by not filling the six vacant patrol positions.  You can see my rationale for these cuts in the memo.   

There was extensive discussion and debate, which you can see if you care to watch the video of the meeting here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=3183  Chief of Police Dave Fallon stated that the SPD had lined up candidates for the six vacant patrol positions, including two black males and a female Dreamer (an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. as a child).  It has been a priority for the Mayor, the Chief and the Council to further diversify the SPD; we all want more women and People of Color police officers.  Councilors agonized with what some perceived as a choice between cutting the budget and further diversifying the SPD.  I and several other Councilors argued that this was actually a false choice; the SPD would be able to hire these six new officers anyway due to openings from retirements expected in the coming year.  Ultimately, six Councilors voted against the proposed $1.2 million cut with four in favor.  The Council than voted unanimously for a $650,000 cut in the salaries line item.  This represents a mere $57,000 above what we expected to be left over, unspent, at the end of the fiscal year.

On Monday, July 2, with Councilor Rossetti leading the way, the Council voted to cut an additional $92,000 from the $550,000 SPD Operations and Maintenance budget.  The Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Mayor to reinvest the cut funds in the RSJ and other, desperately-needed staff and services.

Seeing budget reinvestment of those $742,000,  I was inspired by how much those reinvestments would help needy people in Somerville.  I decided to try again to further cut the SPD budget in order to reinvest those funds.  At the Council meeting of July 9, I proposed an additional $500,000 cut, and suggested that cut could be made by cutting one of the two Deputy Chief positions and not filling the six vacant patrol positions that had been vacant for most of the last two years. 

I had hoped that once it was clear to Councilors that the Mayor would reinvest the cut funds, and how much those funds would help people, if spent for desperate needs like rental assistance and staff for the overwhelmed Office of Housing Stability, some Councilors might change their minds.  However, I was wrong about that; the vote was the same.  We had a heated, but I thought useful and revealing two-hour discussion.   You can see the video of that discussion here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=3191

While I am disappointed that the Council did not cut more, I was delighted by some of the reasons that the Councilors who voted against the cuts gave.  Councilors reiterated their commitment to and strong support for an extensive and deep community process to re-imagine policing in Somerville and reform and restructure the SPD.  Some of those who did not want to further cut the SPD budget argued that it would be wrong to do so until the community process to discuss policing in Somerville happens.  Other reasons given to not further cut the SPD budget were to make certain that the three People of Color that the Chief had identified would actually become SPD officers.  The six Councilors who voted against the cuts stated they are concerned about public safety in Somerville, particularly in the poorer areas of the City, and that they believe that the level of staffing that the Chief proposed was necessary to ensure public safety in Somerville.   

I do not agree with those Councilors’ assessment of what the additional $500,000 spent on the SPD would add to public safety in the City.  For example, the SPD deploys seven patrol cars 24/7/365, including during the graveyard 12 midnight -8 am shift, when there are about half as many calls for service as during the other 16 hours of the day.  The SPD had the same deployment 25 years ago when crime in Somerville was much higher.  I stated that the Chief should redeploy some of those officers on the graveyard shift, who spend most of their time sitting in or driving around in their patrol cars, to the 4 pm -12 midnight shift when most serious crime in the City occurs.  Unfortunately, it seems that seven patrol cars deployed 24/7/365 is an article of faith for the Chief, despite the data.  He recounted that 10 years ago the SPD had cut back to six patrol cars and it was a disaster.  But cutting deployments during the busiest times was not what I advocated. 

Despite my disappointment that additional cuts were not made, I can see that slow progress is being made towards a realistic evaluation of the bloated police budget in Somerville.  Last year, I proposed a $600,000 cut; it got only one other vote and in the end, only $160,000 was cut.  This year, I proposed a $1.2 million cut; it got three other votes and in the end $742,000 was cut.  That is progress!  I eagerly look forward to the community discussion and debate about re-imagining policing and reforming and restructuring the SPD in the coming year, to larger changes in the FY 2022 budget, and to further changes in policing in Somerville in the next three-to-five years.


Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 City Councilor

617 629-8033

mark@markniedergan.com

http://www.markniedergang.com/

Do you like this post?

Pulse

  • Marie McBride
  • Joshua Himmelfarb
  • Michael Moccia
  • Alexi Cohan
  • Mary Markos
  • Sean Diamond
  • Luc Schuster
  • Charles Spellman
  • Jennifer Phillips
  • Michael Allen

Marie McBride just joined.

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or email.