Police vote puts candidate-councilors in spotlight

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Two Democrats running for Congress in the Fourth Congressional District voted this week to oppose a motion before the Newton City Council that would have cut that city’s police department budget by more than $375,000 at a time when cities and towns around the country are facing pressure to rethink how they spend money on law enforcement.

City Councilors Jake Auchincloss and Becky Grossman, who are both running to succeed U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, joined the majority of the council in opposing the motion, arguing that it was a largely symbolic vote and that the issue deserved more careful consideration as part of a broader strategy to rethink policing in Newton.

Both candidates say they want to see the demilitarization of local police, and Grossman’s campaign highlighted her support for eliminating qualified immunity for police at the national level to expose police officers to civil lawsuits if they engage in the use of excessive force or other misconduct.

But the defeat of the motion filed by Councilor Bill Humphrey has been criticized by groups like Defund NPD, who has called on Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to cut spending to the police department by 10 percent.

More than 1,753 people have also signed an online petition hosted on Change.org to “defund” the Newton police for fiscal year 2021. “Help make a change in our local government by reissuing the budget for the police where it can better serve the community,” the petition states.

The situation highlights the struggle some public officials, particularly Democrats and those running for office, are facing as they try to balance being deliberative with the need to be seen as rising to the moment.

“I think people want inclusive, thoughtful, comprehensive action and they want it to start now and it’s starting now, but we also have to recognize we have a responsibility to our constituents to provide for essential services and taking cops off the street without a plan to cover any gaps that might be created, to me, is not responsible policy making,” Auchincloss said.

Humphrey said his colleagues, including Auchincloss and Grossman, have “completely” missed the gravity of the moment that has seen thousands of protesters take to the streets to fight police brutality and push back against what they see as systemic racism in law enforcement.

“I think that some elected officials have not yet familiarized themselves with longstanding efforts to try to rethink pubic safety and move functions out of police departments and into more appropriate departments,” Humphrey said.

But Auchincloss said it’s more complicated than that.

“We are at the onset of truly important conversations here in Newton, and broadly as a country, about what are we asking for from police departments and how does that intersect with our history of systemic racism in this country and how do we best create public safety without being anchored in previous misconceptions,” Auchincloss told the News Service in an interview.

“That’s going to take more than the three or four hours we had to vote as a council,” he said.

Both Auchincloss and Grossman said they support Mayor Fuller’s decision to create an independent, civilian police reform task force to review the Newton Police Department’s police and procedures for recruitment, hiring, training and accountability.

Fuller announced Monday that she would also use $200,000 that had been earmarked in the budget for the Newton Police Department to hire a consultant to guide the task force’s work.

Humphrey’s motion would have eliminated five positions on the police force that are currently vacant for the upcoming fiscal year, saving the city $375,462 in salary and other benefits. It failed on a vote of 8 in favor and 16 opposed.

“We are supposed to be undertaking a comprehensive review of the police department and public safety functions and it didn’t make sense to me to fill those positions before that happens,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey also said he thinks it’s easy for some people to think what they see on television isn’t happening in their own community.

“I think also there’s a tendency to think we’re disconnected from the situation, or that things are different here, but there’s evidence to the contrary,” he said.

Humphrey has endorsed Brookline Democrat Ihssane Leckey for Congress, but said that had no bearing on his opinion of the council vote.

While Humphrey said the money could have been better spent to offset proposed cuts to parks in Newton, both Auchincloss and Grossman’s campaign said the reality is that the money would have been spent on overtime for other police to make up for the lost patrols.

“The cuts proposed on Tuesday night would have further decreased the Newton Police Department budget, which has already been decreased from last year, and would have taken cops off the street,” Auchincloss said.

Grossman was not available for an interview Thursday, but her campaign shared remarks it said she made at the council meeting on Tuesday in which she called systemic racism in policing and society “real and extensive.”

“As elected leaders, we have a responsibility to listen to the millions of Americans crying out for change. I am committed to a deep and thoughtful examination of how we spend money on our police department, and I’m pleased that the Mayor has agreed to convene a Newton Police Reform Task Force. I trust that the citizens of Newton, the Administration, and key advocacy groups will come back to the Council with thoughtful recommendations, including budgetary cuts if appropriate. I look forward to this thorough, top-to-bottom review of the police department,” Grossman said.

Fuller initially proposed a city budget for fiscal 2021 before the pandemic hit that would have increased the police department’s roughly $23 million budget by about $500,000 to cover negotiated salary increases and other expenses.

That increase was reduced to about $147 million in a redrafted budget, and on Monday the mayor proposed to use $200,000 for the task force.

Auchincloss and Grossman are two of nine Democrats running for Congress in the district currently represented by Kennedy, who is running for U.S. Senate.

POLITICO reported on Thursday morning that another candidate, Jesse Mermell, has been reaching out to media outlets and colleges in an attempt to organize debates before the Sept. 1 primary, which have become harder to organize in races around the state due to the pandemic.

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