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Newton activists call on City Council to ‘defund’ police

Newton Police HeadquartersJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Newton activists called for the City Council to “put its money where its mouth is” and re-allocate funds from the Newton Police Department toward other community programs during a virtual public meeting Wednesday.

“Newton has a serious problem and a serious disconnect with the values of inclusion, diversity and equity that it espouses and the actions it takes,” said Achille Vann Ricca, an activist and graduate of Newton North High School. “But we have a chance to live up to the values we espouse.”

A group of Newton activists — many young adults — organized the meeting to focus on “defunding” the Police Department. The event was among many movements around the country to reform the funding of local police departments following protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Almost 300 participants were at the meeting, according to the online roster, and attendees heard statements from students, residents, and Newton City Council members.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller was not available to attend, said spokesperson Sam Nighman, but she sent her office’s director of Community Engagement and Inclusion. Nighman said the mayor’s office reached out to organizers to find another time to meet.

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At the start of the meeting, a shared screen listed the group’s demands: rejecting an increase in police budgeting, new hires, and buying new police cruisers. They also asked for the city to reduce the funding for the Newton Police Department by at least 10 percent and “transfer mental health, addiction, or social service jobs and funds to health and human service, education.”

“That meeting helped me crystalize my opinions,” said City Councilor Susan Albright in an interview the next day. “Bottom up review from an external review of the police department practices, policies, procedures — that will give us information we need to see what needs to be done.”

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Many of the participants with their camera on had either a virtual background or were holding signs that read “Defund the NPD.” The virtual discussion came a week after former Newton resident and Northeastern Athletic Director Tim Duncan reported he was surrounded by Newton police officers outside Whole Foods after being misidentified as a suspect, who was also Black.

“I’ve been paying attention to what the NPD has been saying and not saying,” said Samuel Ntonme, a Newton resident and attorney. “Frankly the NPD’s response to the Tim Duncan incident raised more questions than answers.”

One of the hosts, Alexander Shames, sent a link for people to stay connected with this movement. Shames said they received about 130 responses showing interest in joining the team.

The meeting started with an acknowledgement of Newton as originally indigenous land followed by a moment of silence to reflect and honor victims of police brutality. Four speakers, Vann Ricca, Ntonme, Anna Jones, and Nathan Phillips — all people of color — then shared their own experiences with racism and prejudice in Newton.

Vann Ricca pointed to specific issues that he said have hurt the Black community in Newton, such as the lack of affordable housing and racism in the public schools.

“Unfortunately, I have more experience than time would allow me to spare,” Vann Ricca said. He said he thinks “bias” within Newton Public Schools goes unchecked and is often “covered by a band aid solution of bias days and anti-bullying days.”

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“Newton says we see you, we hear you, we’re making concerted efforts to improve diversity and racism in public schools, but that isn’t felt by Black students — there’s a disconnect between the values and the actions,” Vann Ricca said.

Jones, another member of Newton North’s class of 2019, said that as a person of color, she feels the Newton Police Department has failed to make her feel safe.

“Next time, if you continue to increase the police budget instead of investing in our other community’s centers, next time you say you’re there for me you want to hear my story that Black lives matter, I won’t believe you,” Jones said. “Cause you had a chance. You have the chance right now to prove you do. Don’t ignore it.”

When the Globe asked Newton Public Schools Superintendent David A. Fleishman for thoughts on what students said about racism within the high schools, he replied in an e-mail that he was not at the meeting.

While people were muted unless the host gave them access, comments of support, discussion, and links to resources filled the chat box based on what speakers were saying.

Many of the city councilors present — including Albright, Alicia Bowman, Emily Norton, and Andrea Kelley — asked the speakers and organizers questions, while also bringing up what they say they are doing in the community to address issues of racism.

Albright said there were some misunderstandings about the budget. For example, she said the new police cruisers cited in the group’s demands are not additional cars but rather replacements to ensure cruisers meet vehicle guidelines.

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City Councilor Andrea Kelley said in an e-mail after the discussion that city councilors do not have authority to meet their demands, but they can docket items and resolutions indicating their preferences and positions.

“The group’s demands are aimed at the mayor, who is the only one that can change the budget in ways that some of us wish, to re-allocate money from one budget line to another, for instance from police to re-instituting Sunday hours at the library,” she said in an email.

Zoe Jasper, one of the original organizers, said she thought the meeting was successful and is hopeful for the future. She said she wished council members had asked “more direct questions, rather than just talking about what they have already done.”

In an interview after the meeting, City Councilor Emily Norton said she thought the personal stories from the speakers were important and hopes to submit a budget resolution after getting answers from the Newton Police chief.

Norton said she was personally concerned with why armed police officers are brought to nonviolent issues in Newton such as leaf blower complaints.

The group was planning to hold another meeting to discuss police funding on Thursday. Soon, group leaders said, they hope to have an official open dialogue.

Mia McCarthy can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.

A list of demands for changes to the Newton Police Department in a Zoom meeting June 10. Defund NPD