In just a few days, the Northampton police department will be fully-staffed after a history of turnover and understaffing, according to police chief Jody Kasper.
“We’ve spent a lot more time on recruiting,” Kasper said.
Kasper said the department has focused now more than ever on being proactive and trying to draw new talent to the department. Kasper, who has been at the department for 25 years, said less people are coming to the department asking for a job. She said the department has instead been reaching out to people who might’ve never considered becoming a police officer and have begun having conversations with individuals to see if they’d be interested in becoming an officer.
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“There’s a lot of people who just haven’t considered it,” Kasper said.
Kasper, who was appointed as Northampton’s first female chief, has worked to created progressive policing strategies since becoming chief, such as implementing a civilian co-responder program to improve resources available to those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Despite her work to recruit and retain new officers, Kasper may be leaving Northampton as it was announced that she was one of three finalists to take over as Nantucket police chief. She said she expects to be notified within the next few weeks.
Kasper has also worked to increase representation in the department by being the first municipal police department in the state to commit to the 30x30 initiative, which pledges to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30% by 2030.
“I think it’s important as a recruiting strategy, and also just drawing attention to the issue of really how few women are in the field,” Kasper said.
Kasper said there are 12 sworn women in the department, making up around 21% of the department. There is also one woman entering the academy as a student officer.
Kasper said getting to know people more and offering candidates opportunities to understand the department, such as bringing candidates on ride-alongs or on department tours, is also a crucial part of recruitment. Recruitment opportunities can also come organically, such as visiting a classroom, Kasper said.
While Kasper said she feels lucky that the department will soon be fully staffed — especially compared to the number of vacancies she has heard other departments have been dealing with — it doesn’t mean the department isn’t strained.
Out of the 63 sworn positions funded in the department, she said 11 aren’t available for regular assignment. Five student officers will be going to the police academy on Oct. 16, four are in a four-month field training program, one is on military leave and one officer is injured, Kasper said.
“That’s a high percentage of staff,” Kasper said. “It continues to be one of our most significant issues.”
Despite this, the Northampton police department being fully-staffed is a triumph in many ways as nearly 50 officers have left the department in the last five years — some to retirement following lengthy careers, some who realized early on they didn’t want the job, some to other departments and some to budget cuts.
In June, MassLive reported that the Northampton Police Department was understaffed by around eight officers each month.
Kasper asked the the city council to fund three new positions for the police department in the mayor’s budget which was passed. The three “student officer” positions allow the department to bring on additional recruits earlier than it is currently able.
The additional positions comes after the Northampton city council sliced the police department’s budget by 10% — a $669,957 drop in funding, the majority of it designated for payroll.
Three officers were laid off and one vacant position was left unfilled. Another officer resigned, and his position was also kept empty to balance the budget, Kasper said a week after the funding cut.
In the months that followed, another five police officers resigned and 11 asked for transfers to other departments, she later said.
Kasper said the department received 600 calls which there was no patrol officer to respond to immediately and officers were frequently required to work overtime averaging more than 400 hours a month to meet minimum coverage.
Police officers are paid one-and-a-half times their hourly wage for overtime hours.
“We are asking your city workers to come into work and work 16-hour shifts regularly,” Kasper told Northampton city councilors at a meeting in late May. “They’re in a car making critical decisions that will be quickly judged if they make an error and they’ve been awake for 20 hours. This is not reasonable for them.”
Another incident of controversy happened over the summer when video footage was released showing Northampton police officers pulling a 60-year-old Hispanic woman, Marisol Driouech, from her car, tackling her to the ground and pepper-spraying her. The news sparked a protest outside Northampton City Hall.
The primary officer involved, John Sellew, was assigned to remedial communication training, according to Kasper. But an investigation into the use of force, conducted by an outside firm, concluded that Sellew’s actions were “reasonable and proportionate” considering all factors, and charges of misuse of force were not sustained, Kasper said.
Kasper was clear that she disagreed with Sellew’s handling of the incident.
“This should not have happened,” Kasper said. “Our community expects and deserves that we meet certain professional standards and in this case we did not meet those standards.”
Northampton hasn’t been alone in staffing issues. Police resignations reached a two-decade high in New York last year. Washington, D.C.’s police staffing sunk to a half-century low, and is expected to fall further. Across the country, there is an exodus of officers from the profession.
“No one wants to be a cop these days,” Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney said last year.
Among the reasons typically cited by police officials is the increased scrutiny, and sometimes hostility, cops now face, particularly since the 2020 murder of George Floyd and other high-profile cases of police misconduct.
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