NEWBURYPORT – City councilors, along with the Newburyport Human Rights Commission and local police, are expected to host a public forum later this summer on the Police Department's use of force policy.  

City Councilor Barry Connell said this week the forum is tentatively scheduled for early September and will include discussion of not only the department's use of force policy but also reported uses of force. 

"I think it's good for people to know we're thinking about it," Connell said, adding that the forum is a chance to make sure the department's policy reflects the values of Newburyport residents.

"In this climate, this is an opportunity for us," he said.

Connell said the forum's format was finalized July 2 during a Zoom videoconference meeting with Human Right Commission members, Ward 5 City Councilor Jim McCauley and Sgt. Gregory Whitney of the Police Department.

Connell said Whitney and the department were open to review and responsive.

"I was encouraged by the attitude of the Police Department and the enthusiasm of the Human Rights Commission," Connell said. 

Human Rights Commission leader Ahmer Ibrahim said in an email that he supports the forum, calling it a "good idea."

"Open dialogue is always good and can help educate the public about our Police Department and educate the Police Department about what concerns or questions the public has," Ibrahim said. 

Ibrahim added that residents will have a chance to submit questions or concerns.

"The exact format is being discussed as we have to work with restrictions and guidelines surrounding COVID-19 and gatherings," Ibrahim said in his email. "This is all very preliminary and further details are forthcoming as they materialize." 

Phone calls to City Marshal Mark Murray for reaction to the upcoming forum were not returned Thursday.  

Local and national use of force policies have been under scrutiny in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers in late May. Floyd's murder led to nationwide protests over policy conduct and calls to defund or dismantle police departments. 

"Given the public focus on policing at this time, I believe the time is right for Newburyport to examine the use of force," Connell said in a written statement. "We want to be proactive and not have to react to an incident that results in property damage, injury, or loss of life."

In the same statement, Connell said he was against defunding police. For the vast majority of Americans, "defunding the police" means diverting police department money to mental health or counseling services.

"Some of the demands by members of the public are, in my view, ill-conceived and unreasonable," Connell wrote. "The idea that we defund the police in favor of funding comprehensive social programs ignores the fact that we already fund or support many social programs that dovetail with private nonprofit or faith-based programs throughout the community."

Connell also stated he is against removing police officers from Newburyport's public schools, a demand made by a recent Newburyport High School graduate as part of an online petition created last month. 

"The demand that we remove a police officer from our schools ignores the needs of 21st century schools, and the many benefits of having our kids develop positive, trusting relationships with our school resource officers," Connell wrote. 

A check of the Newburyport Police Department's use of force policy shows the banning of chokeholds, including the kind that led to Floyd's death, and a requirement to document every instance an officer draws or exhibits a firearm. 

"The use of carotid restraint, lateral vascular neck constraints, and similar control techniques are not authorized for use by this department personnel due to the inherent danger involved in the use of such techniques," the policy states. 

The policy also states that lethal force may only be used when an officer reasonably believes it is in "defense of human life, including the officer's own life, or in the defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury, and all other means have been reasonably exhausted."

Asked if the forum could lead to use of force policy changes, Connell said it is too early to tell but added that it is more important for the community to express their thoughts on the matter in an open setting. 

"That's what's going to guide us as we go forward," Connell said. 

Staff writer Dave Rogers can be reached at drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

REFER: Council committee backs equality resolution, Page 3.

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