How One Community Is Demanding Their Local Government Change Its Approach to Policing

Supermajority Education Fund

July 6, 2020

When Meg Bossong first moved to Pittsfield, MA three years ago, she knew that she wanted to “get involved with community work and invest in this city that I really love.” She soon found that the community “has so many needs,” including ⁠those around poverty, substance abuse disorders, food justice issues, and policing, she told Supermajority News. Those needs were part of the reason the community wanted to open up a new discussion about public safety and the role and disproportionate impact of the police force on the city’s budget.

While community members and advocates fully recognized and discussed those needs, Bossong said, “we kept running into this narrative that there were not enough resources” to address them. 

In June, however, a coalition of community organizers, local groups and activists of which Bossong was a part pushed back on this narrative by introducing the new “Invest In Pittsfield” initiative, which called on a revision of the city budget that would divert some funds from the police budget in order to “invest in a just, healthy, and safe future for Pittsfield.” The group was particularly focused on the fact that Pittsfield’s budget dedicated $30,000 a day to funding the police at a time when public health and education funding were being cut back.

Supermajority News chatted with Bossong about her activism journey, why the Pittsfield coalition decided to focus on the city’s budget ,and her advice for people who are interested in getting involved in their communities.

When did you first get involved with activism around policing and public safety issues?

A lot of my activism started when I began working in sexual violence prevention and response. I  was spending a lot of time looking and thinking about how communities respond to violence or prevent intimate violence. I also came up in a part of that movement that, in some ways, was really invested in policing and in getting police and courts invested in thinking about the seriousness of these issues.

At the same time, I also saw how policing was insufficient in terms of how they could address what people wanted and needed in terms of their safety needs from the folks around them so even in the rare cases when people could have the experience of getting an arrest or conviction, it wasn’t solving the underlying issues.

How did the coalition decide to focus the Invest in Pittsfield initiative on the policing budget?

A lot of the conversation has been focused on looking at how our cities run and thinking about the ways people involve themselves in the working of a community. One of the things that we noticed is that people don’t have any hesitation in participating in conversations about the schools or working groups around substance abuse disorders, but in terms of policing which has this very large presence in our community there wasn’t a meaningful way for people to get involved in how we talk about safety in the community.

In many cities, the budget is one of those places where the city council and many elected officials have the ability to provide oversight. City budgets are moral documents in the sense that they say on paper ‘this is what we most value.’ So we sat down and looked at the budget and said, ‘Do we value policing over everything else in our city?’ If that is untrue and not how people feel, then the budget is where we need to start in terms of recalibrating that conversation.

Helen Haerhan Moon is the Ward 1 city councilor in Pittsfield who, after hearing from her constituents and listening to the public comment session, brought forward all the budgetary motions to decrease the department’s budget. Activist Shirley Edgerton has been pushing racial justice work in the Pittsfield community and schools for decades and has been talking extensively about the racially disparate discipline and criminalization issues presented by the presence of school resource officers in the schools.

Pittsfield only has about 45,000 residents, but as your site notes, it spends $30,000 a day on policing.

Yes, and that’s a huge amount of money. What we are trying to do is start a conversation with our neighbors about whether this is the vision for the place that we want to live.

If we have the chance to spend $30,000 a day on stuff, would we want to spend it all on policing? What would happen if we even took half that money $15,000 and spent it on needs around housing and homelessness or needs around youth and jobs? What would our city look like if we did that? 

What have conversations with lawmakers and other community leaders who are newer to these ideas been like?

Policing is a thing that is heavily municipal, and you can actually accomplish so much through your local government. Especially if you live in a smaller community, you can be in direct conversation with the city council and the mayor and pull together a significant portion of the population to talk about this. 

It is true that police officer unions are extremely powerful political entities and often act as if they have a monopoly on the conversation on safety. The moment an elected official starts to question the role of policing or the resourcing of policing, they immediately get attacked by police unions who say ‘this person is not committed to public safety’ or ‘they are opposed to officers on the front lines.’ That’s why that person has to be prepared to say, ‘this is why I am talking about this. Here is my framework on safety, here’s my framework on wellness.’

What advice do you have for someone who is new to activism but wants to get more involved?

I would encourage several different things. One is to find the people in your local communities who are working on this in order to make sure that folks connect with work that is ongoing. In a smaller community, it is easier. If I were looking to be involved, I would go to people in the community who are at every community meeting or every community board and ask “Hi, so-and-so, I am interested in this issue… who is working on this?” 

Sometimes when people become more truly alive or truly awake to an issue, they assume that if it’s new to them, it is new to the world, but that isn’t the case. I would tell people to just try and connect with the folks who have been doing this a long time they are established, and they have the lay of the land.