by Ellyssa Jeong & Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Editors
photo by Hedi Skali; graphic by Emily Zhang
Senior Valerie Goldstein began her afternoon of Jan. 5 like any other, directing a rehearsal for South Stage’s play “Lia’s Love Story,” until, around 2 p.m., her phone started buzzing and wouldn’t stop. Notifications were flooding in from Defund Newton Police Department (Defund NPD)’s Slack group about the shooting of a Newton resident at Indulge!, a candy shop in Newton Highlands.
Goldstein, upon reading the messages, was quick to end her rehearsal and join a meeting with other members of Defund NPD. Goldstein said that the call lasted several hours, as the community sought after details of the shooting.
“He wasn’t pronounced dead at that point yet, so we were talking about helping him pay for his medical bills. As the night went on and we started finding out more and more details, and we heard of his death, we got more and more outraged,” she said. “When the 911 calls were released the following day, I listened to it and just cried. It was heartbreaking because you could hear how in pain he was. He was saying how he didn’t want to hurt anyone and how he needed help.”
The victim of the shooting was Michael Conlon, a 28-year-old man who was having a mental health crisis; he lived in an apartment near Indulge!. Witnesses told WCVB that Conlon told the store owner that he was off his medication and pulled out a knife, prompting a 911 call. WCVB reported that police officers then arrived on the scene, followed by a mental health clinician, who did not approach the scene because it was deemed too dangerous.
In response to the shooting, City Councilor Bill Humphrey wrote in a newsletter that the situation was not handled properly, especially considering the victim’s psychological condition.
“Police did not need to use deadly force — something I believe should never occur, not just this time — and they were not the appropriate people to resolve this incident. … This tragedy was avoidable, and … this speaks to a broader need to restructure and reconsider public safety from the ground up,” he wrote. “We also know that other occupations, especially nurses, have a great deal of experience in resolving mental health episodes without resorting to deadly force.”
Following the shooting, Defund NPD organized a Jan. 6 protest to mourn and honor Conlon and to demand the separation between mental health services and police.
Senior Elianna Kruskal attended the protest and spoke as one of the emcees.
“We have seen time and time again that police officers are simply not trained or equipped to effectively handle mental health issues; the instincts police gain/strengthen through their training are incredibly harmful and detrimental in many scenarios including mental health, and we need to remove the responsibility from police,” he wrote in a Jan. 25 email.
Guidance counselor and Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education club advisor Sarah Style said individuals with mental illness are rightfully concerned about policing protocol.
“I can imagine someone who struggles with mental illness worrying about misperceptions,” she said. “People may suffer from severe mental illness for a brief period of time or for an extended period of time. Others of us have family members and loved ones who may suffer from mental illness. I think it’s misunderstood because it’s invisible in a way that physical disabilities are not.”
Biases in policing extend beyond the treatment of people who struggle with mental illness, often manifesting in patterns of racial profiling.
Racism in Policing
On May 20, former assistant athletic director at Northeastern University and Newton resident Tim Duncan was on a walk with his wife near his Newton home when he was approached by six policemen with guns drawn.
In a video created mainly for his student-athletes following the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, he addressed his own threatening experience with police in Newton and his outrage at the nation’s history of policing biases.
“It’s not okay that just because I’m a tall Black man walking one block from his house that I’m pulled over and said that I fit a profile of a murder suspect just because he was tall. I understand that the police have to do their job, but to roll down on me with guns drawn when I’m walking on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon with my wife is uncalled for,” he said in the video.
“It’s uncalled for that George Floyd had a knee on his neck for eight minutes and I think 46 seconds. It’s uncalled for that Ahmaud was running through a neighborhood — I’m a runner, I run through neighborhoods all the time — and someone hunted him down and killed him, and that’s not okay. This stuff has happened way too much.”
An internal affairs review conducted by Sargent Kevin Rudd following the incident found that the actions of the officers “were prudent and justified.”
A Defund NPD report analyzed police field interrogations and observations and found that compared to white people, Black people are 9.01 times and Latinx people 2.47 times more likely to be interrogated by Newton police when police initiate the encounter. Additionally, for officer-initiated interrogations, Defund NPD found that Black people are experiencing 6.94 times and Latinx people 1.93 times the expected quantity of field interrogations.
Defund NPD History and Goals
As a result of the hypervisibility of racially charged policing incidents across the country, initiatives have surged toward limiting the costly budget for police departments; Defund NPD, which was founded in June of 2020, strives to accomplish this goal. The organization has grown since its beginning, including South students Goldstein and Kruskal.
Goldstein said that she joined Defund NPD to make a difference following tragic acts of police brutality both locally and across the country.
“This is a great local organization that’s doing some really important work, so I decided to join, and it’s been such an important sense of community for me, within the group, as well as the way we’ve interacted with the broader community,” she said.
With support, there is backlash. Kruskal wrote that some misinterpret Defund NPD’s motives.
“There is this huge misconception in Newton that we have some personal vendetta against cops in Newton and that we want to punish them, which could not be farther from the truth,” he wrote. “Every single Newton police officer could be ‘perfect’ and have done no harm, and we would still have issues with policing and want to reallocate funds because the system is set up in so many problematic ways that the individuals matter less.”
Kruskal wrote that although Defund NPD’s primary objective for 2021 is to reallocate Newton’s policing budget towards social services, its goal of protecting all members of the community remains most salient.
“Generally, we hope to create a Newton that is safe and welcoming for all and a community that promotes equity and explicitly lifts up voices that have been historically and systemically silenced, like [those of] Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, disabled people and queer people,” Kruskal wrote.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller gave an address in June 2020 that banned officers from using chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene in instances of excessive force.
The limitations of force response protocols was an initiative from Campaign Zero, an organization associated with the Black Lives Matter organization. Campaign Zero urges law enforcements in major cities across the nation to adopt eight policies of de-escalation techniques and transparency.
An NPD document outlined protocols last revised on June 15, 2020 regarding the procedures for usage of lethal force and firearms, both sections which state on multiple occasions that lethal force should only be used when the officers are confronted with life-threatening situations and when all de-escalation techniques are exhausted.
The NPD Use of Force manual mandates that officers use their best judgement in categorizing the threat level, and thus protocols, of a given situation.
Style said that it’s crucial to examine police training on a national level.
“It’s important to look at the training that they receive specifically about identifying and supporting citizens they encounter who are struggling with mental illness,” she said. “It’s very tragic when people who are in the midst of a mental illness crisis are not given the support that they need at that moment.”
Though the Newton Highlands shooting is still under investigation, many Newton residents have expressed their outrage at the handling of the incident, Goldstein said.
Fuller declined to comment on the shooting; however, her Feb. 4 newsletter to the Newton community detailed the draft recommendations of the Police Reform Task Force. The proposal includes refining “the scope of the Newton Police Department, which might include a different approach to crisis situations and non-police responses to various violations,” and an internal NPD Police Review Committee has called for “new ways to respond to mental health calls.” Final recommendations have yet to be released.
Style said that in addition to reviewing law enforcement policies and procedures, local elections play a critical role in reassessing NPD’s role.
“Voting is really critical and so is supporting legislation that reexamines policing. I think it would be a great step — not just at the local level but at the state and national level as well,” she said. “There are lots of different ways to approach it, and I think now more than ever we should reexamine it.”