A webinar for Amherst area residents entitled “Racial Equity and Public Safety in the Town of Amherst” was held on June 11 via Zoom. The event was coordinated by Gazit Chaya Nkosi of the Amherst Human Rights Commission and co-hosted by Nkosi and UMass Professors Dee Shabazz and Amilcar Shabazz. Other panelists were Amherst Police Department (APD) Chief Scott Livingstone, Police Captain Gabe Ting, Town Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)) and Pat De Angelis (District 2), and Town Manager Paul Bockelman. Approximately fifty members of the community participated via Zoom including several other Town Councilors.
The panel was organized by Nkosi, who had reached out to Livingstone with questions in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. She had previously facilitated discussions, about relations of the police with people of color in some of Amherst’s apartment complexes and then began a dialog with Livingstone. She and Dee Shabazz had spoken to parents of children of color who had been profiled by the police, and after the murder of Floyd, she also reached out to Bockelman. “I told them we need to be talking about how this impacts our own community,” Nkosi said. Both Bockelman and Livingstone were immediately receptive, she said.
Following introductions, Amilcar Shabazz gave the Chief and his Captain an opportunity to speak about how they are responding to the moment personally. Livingstone said that he was heartbroken by the murder of Floyd. He said it is hard to accept, and that “the entire profession is tarnished by it.” Captain Ting, who said he grew up in Amherst and has never left it, having attended Amherst public schools and UMass, hoped that the day’s dialogue would be fruitful and focus on “what we can do here in Amherst.”
Amilcar Shabazz facilitated the discussion around six questions, which were sometimes supplemented with questions and comments from people who were following on Zoom.
Here are excerpts.
A. Shabazz: Governor Baker is pushing for a statewide licensing process for police. What bearing does this have on Amherst?
Livingstone: I haven’t yet seen the proposal but if it improves the professionalism of police, all the better. Currently we don’t even have a mechanism in Massachusetts to ensure that law enforcement agencies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
A.Shabazz: I am especially concerned with training and tracking for use of force [UOF].
Livingstone: The APD is a State-accredited police agency, meaning that we’re obliged to follow a set of best practices, policies, and mandates. The use of force policy is quite encompassing. Any time there is a use of force it must be reported, forms are filled out, and supervisors ensure that use was within policy. Every UOF incident is reviewed annually. The APD tracks trends as well to make sure that there are no undesirable patterns.
A. Shabazz: Can you tell us about your de-escalation procedures? I recall the case of Sandra Bland, who was stopped and arrested in Texas for changing lanes without signaling and was found dead in her jail cell five days later. How can police prevent escalating in cases like that?
Livingstone: De-escalation training is important in our agency because that’s how you avoid the use of force. We have the regional trainer for this on our force. This is part of our UOF training.
A. Shabazz: How are the police prepared to deal with mental health issues?
Livingstone: We are seeing more and more calls that are mental health-related. Roughly a third of our calls are mental health-related.
Ting: We have a number of people within the agency who are trained in crisis intervention. We train to distinguish persons in crisis from persons engaged in criminal activity. We feel like Amherst is pretty strong in that area and ahead of where most agencies are.
A. Shabazz: What about citizen oversight?
Livingstone: We don’t have a lot of citizen oversight except when it comes to hiring. There is no citizen input when it comes to policy and policy development. I wonder what the town would like to see? Where would the citizens like to have more input? There was a committee that collected racial profiling data in the past, before my time as chief, but I’m not aware if that’s still operative.
A. Shabazz: There were a lot of red flags in the conduct of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. There seems to be a lot of interest among folks at this webinar to having a means for tracking behavior like this. Who is looking for the red flags in Amherst, and what procedures can we have in place to make sure that they are addressed? [Former U.S. Vice President Joe] Biden wants to tie federal funding to compliance with good practice—is that a productive approach?
Livingstone: We do a lot of grant writing to support our programs and so we need to be sensitive to a federal mandate.
A. Shabazz: Can we talk about the police budget? There are now calls across the country to defund the police.
Livingstone: More and more stuff is being put on our plates. If there’s not an address for it, we tend to give it to the police. For example, are we going to ask the cops to enforce mask use? Who’s going to enforce masks? With respect to our budget, it would not be safe or sensible for us to cut any training, and we aren’t inclined to do so. And 80 percent of our budget is for personnel. So it’s not like there’s a lot there to trim.
A. Shabazz: Understanding the historical context of racism and race relations is very important. What are the prospects for getting some history into police training so that they understand some of the context in which they are working?
Livingstone: Our training generally comes from cops or retired cops. I’ve been pushing to get people from outside of the police profession to do some of our trainings (so far without success) and to my knowledge there’s been little training available on the historical context of race and race relations. But we’re enthusiastically open to it.
Audience member: The record of Derek Chauvin [the police officer accused of killing George Floyd] was dismal. How does the APD track infractions by officers?
Livingstone: Any complaint would be investigated internally and shared by all supervisors. Discipline comes up through the Chief and Town Manager. But who has access to those personnel records—that’s very limited.
Ting: We kind of police each other and have a peer support system. If something is really amiss, someone is going to step up and say something. But sharing data with the public has always been a sticking point…with setting up any kind of citizen review panel. Personnel records and rights of confidentiality are always a challenge—no less so with police.
Bockelman: The culture of the agency is important and the Town puts a lot of effort into getting things right with the hiring. We know of many toxic departments and for those departments, there is no possibility of reform—they need to be disbanded. But we work hard to bring in people who will work well with our community and who are well suited to work in a community as diverse as Amherst. Transparency is our friend so we want everyone to know what our policies are and that we hold our employees to them.
Livingstone: I take personal responsibility for recruiting and I put a lot of effort into it. It’s hard to recruit good police officers now and we make a big effort to bring in women and people of color. And local hires—our last three hires were from Amherst, Granby, and South Hadley—and we make sure we hire people who are representative of our community, who are comfortable and culturally prepared to be in a diverse community, and who know what Amherst is about.
A. Shabazz: We know that the two forces in town [UMass and APD] collaborate. Do you share training around issues of race and bias?
Livingstone: Yes, we do implicit bias training together and we continue to reach out to them to collaborate on issues concerning bias. Amherst police receive 22 weeks of training at the police academy. Then 14 weeks of field training with APD officers. And then annual ongoing training. The state mandate is 40 hours annually but we do a lot more than that.
A. Shabazz: There are problems reported with police unions obstructing accountability.
Livingstone: I think we’d agree on police unions more than you expect.
Livingstone: We’re doing a lot of stuff well and there are things that we can do better. In particular we need to expand our ability—the way that we listen to people of color.”
Nkosi: White people often create barriers to the participation of people of color that they are unaware of and POC often have vulnerabilities that white people aren’t aware of. Access to people in power continues to be really problematic for people of color.
Nkosi commended Bockelman and Livingstone for being aware that there are reasons why people of color are not showing up and participating in Town government and that may rest in the behavior of Town officials. She commended them for acknowledging a need to look into how behavior of Town officials are part of the problem and for asking how to effectively address that.
The webinar ended after its 90 minutes of scheduled time with much left to say and many questions that had been posed by listeners unaddressed. The panelists agreed that this was a good start and that there is good reason to keep the conversations going.