Mayor Sarno and Commissioner Clapprood,
I am writing you from the Wildflower Alliance (formerly known as the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community). We are a community of people who have navigated an array of challenges, and use those and other life experiences to offer support, consultation, and training to positively impact the lives of those around us. Our work is internationally recognized, including our Northampton-based respite house (Afiya, an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization) that was recently included in an international listing of two dozen exemplary rights-based supports by the World Health Organization.
On January 9, 2022, officers as of yet unnamed were called to a residence where they found Orlando Taylor outside at the intersection of Liberty and Cass Streets in Springfield, Massachusetts. To the best of our understanding, Taylor was visibly distressed. Yet uniformed officers nonetheless approached him and demanded he drop a knife that he was holding. The end result was an officer being stabbed in the neck, and Taylor being shot to death.
This story is all too familiar. A person in distress is approached by police officers. The situation escalates. The person in distress – so often black or brown – winds up dead. The media and various political figures then attempt to justify the killing by denigrating the one who died, and elevating those who killed them. (The quote “the injured officer was described by a department spokesperson as a nine-year department veteran and a military veteran,” has appeared in pieces published by at least three different media outlets including U.S. News.)
Emotions are already running high given the collective trauma of the pandemic we’re all doing our best to survive. Many of us are just trying to scrape by, too often faltering along the way. This includes many of the types of community supports precisely designed to be there for people in emotional distress. For example, our own Springfield center – typically the busiest of the four we operate – is now closed until further notice because our current budget isn’t enough to sustain paying people adequately to be there. It is one of the only places in a city of over 150,000 that offers free access to a shower, resource information, a place to warm up or cool down, and peer support with no red tape standing in the way. And it’s closed indefinitely.
Unsurprisingly, trust in public officials across the nation is at a near all-time low. Here is where we look at you, Commissioner Clapprood. When, in a letter addressed to the Mass Senior Action Council, you wrote “My department is not racist nor do we suffer from systemic racism,” you demonstrated little more than that you do not understand what systemic racism is. If you understood, you would know that no part of our community could possibly be entirely free of it. And your denial of that fact suggests not only your unwillingness to see it, but your inability to address it in any genuine sort of way. And we’re looking at you, Mayor Sarno, for when you stated “In my eyes, unfortunately, [Taylor’s shooting death] was justified,” you demonstrated a willingness to essentially issue a verdict on a situation for which you couldn’t possibly hold all the facts just yet. Inevitably, this came across as an attempt to influence the public before they’d had opportunity to see anything for themselves. How can we possibly retain any faith in city leadership in light of this?
That said, you have the power to begin to rebuild some degree of trust. Another black man is dead at the hands of police. Another person with a psychiatric diagnosis is dead at the hands of police. According to the site, ‘Mapping Police Violence,’ black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Many killed are also disabled. This is all true in spite of the fact that most police killings start with something other than a violent crime, including officers being called in to do a “mental health check.” This must change. What you each do next is critical.
We call upon you to follow through with the demands made in the statement that was written and signed by Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the Greater Springfield NAACP, Rev. David Lewis, president of the Pioneer Valley Project, and Tanisha Arena, the executive director of ARISE for Social Justice, as well as by the Springfield chapter of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, Springfield No One Leaves, and M.O.R.E. Their demands included:
1. Release the video. We support this demand. We want to see the footage documenting the details of the interaction between police and Taylor that led up to his death. We want to see it even more so now that it was reported in a January 13 article that the injured officer perplexingly paused to show Taylor’s mother his wound before shooting Taylor to death. The footage needs to be released now, not some time down the road after the public’s memory of what transpired has gone dim. We were pleased to see your own call for transparency in the same January 13 article, Mayor Sarno. We understand your proposed window for the video being released to be “As soon as the family have a chance to view it.” That article indicates that this has already happened. Do not ask us to trust your eyes or perceptions. We need to see for ourselves.
2. Stop making public statements suggesting Taylor’s shooting was justified. We support this demand. Statements being made by both of you have been premature, not fully informed, and come across as attempts to influence public opinion. This is an abuse of power whether intentional or not. We also recommend that you issue public apologies for having made these statements, and acknowledge that it was wrong of you to do so.
3. Allow for an outside investigation conducted by a neutral party. We support this demand. It is well past time that organizations and systems that hold such significant power over the public stop being responsible for their own investigations. We simply can’t move quickly or readily to easy acceptance of ‘distressed person with knife’ as a threshold for justifying deadly force.
We also add the following:
Fund and implement an alternative crisis response program. It is not appropriate for police to be responding to people in distress. Distress is not a criminal act, but police response dramatically increases the potential that criminal acts may be provoked. Simply seeing a uniformed officer can exacerbate many situations of this nature, let alone if officers approach too quickly or aggressively. Years later, I personally still remember the loud banging as officers slammed their fists against the door of our Springfield center just because they were “looking for someone.” I also remember how much they didn’t understand why their behavior was a problem or how the aggressiveness it represented could have precipitated violence simply by kicking people into “fight or flight” (trauma response) mode.
We understand that people often call upon police for lack of other clear options, and that police sometimes respond in the way that they do because of their own training and lack of choices of where to go with things once called in. We also know that people recommend crisis services for the same (lack of alternative) reason, but urge you to not see that as any real solution either. Force-laden approaches – be they police or clinically driven – are increasingly well-documented as being insufficient, sometimes harmful, and frequently leading to worsened outcomes. (For example, one study found that even the perception of coercion at the point of a psychiatric hospitalization led to increased risk of suicide upon discharge.)
The Pioneer Valley Project has requested $250,000 to implement an alternative. We support this ask, although believe that figure to be low, and missing funding for physical, community-based spaces where people can go following an alternative crisis response intervention. We also would like to offer ourselves toward development and implementation of such supports in whatever way we can be of service. We know CAHOOTS is being touted as a model to follow, although we would argue there are other approaches that might be even better. We point you toward the ACES bill currently under review (H.2519 / S.1552), and the efforts in Northampton to establish a new Department of Community Care to implement crisis alternatives as but two additional examples of ways forward. The City of Springfield – and specifically its Mayor and Police Commissioner – have the power to call for change.
There is so much more we could say here, but we don’t want to risk diluting the most important parts of this message. We live in a society where there are many reasons to be distressed. For some of us – particularly those of us whose basic needs are not being met or who have routinely been treated as if we are invisible or disposable – that can lead us to dark places. But those are places from which we can emerge if responded to with support and compassion rather than violence.
What you do next couldn’t be more important.
On behalf of the Wildflower Alliance,