by Sophie Lewis, Managing Editor
Above, outgoing Police Chief David MacDonald speaks at a virtual City Council meeting
During a typical year, the Newton City Council might spend two or three evenings debating the city budget, Ward 6 Councilor Brenda Noel said. As of Tuesday night, however, the Council has spent nearly 10 hours over the course of three days discussing the Newton Police Department (NPD) budget alone.
“You’ve got two really unprecedented things happening with this budget,” Noel said. “You’ve got universal dissatisfaction with the police system as it exists, then you’ve also got these dramatic, unknown budget cuts from COVID-19.”
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller announced on May 11 that the city is predicting a $9.6 million revenue decrease for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) as a result of the pandemic. Her initial proposal to account for this budget shortfall included eliminating Sunday library hours, putting school maintenance projects on hold for the summer and funding fewer municipal positions.
“In this recommended budget, important initiatives and investments are postponed, but the City of Newton’s financial situation remains strong and resilient,” she said.
Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25 highlighted the dangers of police brutality, student organizers have turned their attention to the $23 million NPD budget, which includes a $147,000 increase from FY20.
Junior Daniel Glickman helped found a group called Greater Boston Teens Against Systemic Racism, which planned a march from Boyden Park in Boston to Newton City Hall to advocate for defunding the Newton police on June 7.
“Seeing 300 people show up to something that was organized in three days by seven Newton South teens is so liberating,” he said.
Yuval Dinoor, ‘17 graduate and rising senior at Barnard College, said she was inspired to take action after participating in a phone-calling session with her Ward 6 at-large councilor, Vicky Danberg.
“She was just very frustrated, feeling like she was getting a lot of these template emails and that a lot of them weren’t even from people that lived in Newton,” Dinoor said.
Experienced with graphic design, Dinoor posted about the conversation on her Instagram. She wanted to tell people how to be more effective activists, she said, and the post has since reached people of all ages, including some middle schoolers.
“It was just getting to corners that I had never anticipated it would go and at that point, I got back in touch with the people who had put the phone jam together. They contacted me and saw my graphics,” she said. “So I hopped on board with them.”
That group, called Defund NPD, has continued to mobilize against the proposed police budget. They organized a public meeting on June 10 that drew 15 city councilors and reached up to 289 total attendees.
Newton residents of color, including two ‘19 North graduates, spoke at the meeting in favor of defunding the police.
“The police invoke fear for me,” Anna Jones said. “They invoke even greater fear for me when I think of my brothers, who must walk through these streets as black men.”
“I challenge Newton to put its money where its mouth is,” Achille Van Ricca said.
At the end of the meeting, Dinoor presented a list of demands that target specific line items in the police budget, including moving funds from cruisers, militarized gear and the hiring of five new officers towards education and public health services. Overall, the proposed demands would lead to a 10.5% reduction in police funding.
Although the City Council cannot make changes to the FY21 budget — they can only make recommendations to the mayor in the form of resolutions — city councilors have faced pressure through email campaigns to take action against the police budget.
“I don’t think anyone here wants to defund the police, which is what all those emails said,” City Council President Susan Albright said during a June 8 council meeting. “But I do think we want to be careful about what we’re spending it on.”
On June 11, the council passed Resolution 7 to establish a commission to fully review the police department through the lens of racial justice. A motion by Councilor Bill Humphrey to remove funding for the five police officer positions that have been vacant for two to six years failed to pass on Tuesday.
In a speech on Monday night, the mayor publicly responded to concerns about police funding. Her initiatives include adopting the “8CANTWAIT” reforms — beginning today, NPD officers are banned from using chokeholds and are required to intervene during instances of excessive force — and moving $200,000 in the FY21 budget from the purchase of two police cruisers to the creation of a Newton Police Reform Task Force.
The mayor acknowledged that her actions do not address all the demands of young activists.
“I know that there are people, especially our young people, demanding defunding the police,” Fuller said. “Tonight, I have called for reimagining the Police Department, and we will see in the coming months the budgetary implications. Let’s decide first what we want to do and then budget accordingly. Please know I heard the widespread call and announced last week Sunday hours at the library, assuming we can reopen in a healthy and safe manner by then.”
The next day, Fuller announced that Police Chief David MacDonald plans to retire.
“He recently recognized that with all of the work we have ahead, that his successor would be best off starting that important work from the beginning stages, rather than at the implementation stage,” her statement read.
The Committee for Public Safety and Transportation has requested a discussion with the police chief and plans to debate a resolution on police policy and training. That meeting will begin tonight at 7 p.m. Budget deliberations will resume on Thursday evening. The council is expected to vote on a motion to move $275,000 out of the NPD budget — this amount accounts for a significant proportion of the salaries for the five vacant police officer positions. The final budget must be approved by June 25.
For the Defund NPD group, fighting the FY21 budget is only the first step. Dinoor said that planning for FY22 is underway, perhaps with a different city council in office.
“We are taking very close note of which councilors did and did not cooperate with public interest on this issue. We certainly plan to take that into account as voters going into the next election,” she said. “I’m hoping that the next city council we elect will have more young representatives. It will have more counselors of color.”
Dinoor said that Defund NPD has a clear end goal: the abolition of the Newton police.
“Abolition is something that does not happen overnight,” she said. “It happens there’s a spectrum of different implementations of abolition. All of them are important to consider.”
A key challenge facing any efforts to improve the police department is the strength of the Newton Police Association, Noel said.
“Traditional unions have always protected vulnerable populations and made sure that workers rights are there,” she said. “The police union’s a little bit of a different animal.” Noel said that there is little public oversight or scrutiny of police functions.
For Samuel Ntomne, an attorney who lives in Newton, the failures of the NPD were revealed when officers pulled a gun on Tim Duncan, a black man whom they wrongly assumed was a murder suspect. The response from the police department has been less than satisfactory, Ntomne said.
“If the chief doesn’t know what’s going on in the department, how can I know it’s working properly?” he said at the June 10 public meeting.
Racial profiling extends beyond police officers, Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton said at the June 11 city council meeting. She shared the story of a black woman in Newton, whose neighbor called the police on her brother, who was visiting from out of town.
“It’s going to be about changing the culture — not just the culture of the police force but the culture that’s in every one of us,” she said.
Noel said that reconsidering the NPD budget is nonetheless a matter of utmost importance.
“Somebody said the other day the budget is just the tip of the iceberg with racism and the police and our concerns,” she said. “And I actually disagree with that. I think the budget is the foundation of the iceberg because what you fund and what you support is really going to send a message.”
“If Newton makes the right decision,” Glickman said, “That could start a whole new domino effect.”