Town Council Asked To Fund Programs Supporting BIPOC Residents


Photo: Creative Commons

This is one of two articles on the Regular Town Council Meeting of  May 24, 2021.  The other article can be viewed here. The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording can be viewed here

Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Darcy DuMont and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Bockelman introduced the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) report saying that the committee has been working since November to produce it. The full report can be read here. He said the report points to areas of concern around policing in Amherst and sets the stage for progress. He recommended that everyone read the report in full.

CSWG Presentation
Most of the presentation was given by CSWG co-chairs Brianna Owen and Elisha Walker. Other members of the committee gave brief personal statements about why they became involved with CSWG. Debora Ferreira said her ten year old son witnessed the media coverage of George Floyd’s murder, and her 17 year old son just got his driver’s license. She has had to have “the talk” with both of them about how to act if stopped by police. Pat Ononibaku said very little has changed since she moved to Amherst decades ago. She has five children, and she fears for their lives.

Russ Vernon-Jones said that the charge of the CSWG was to recommend changes in policing—a chance to go beyond education. Owen said she works with young people who have aged out of foster care and, as a former foster child herself, she wanted to represent people who don’t often get a seat at the table. And Walker said, “This is my community, where I am raising my children.” She said this community is important to her.

Owen began by stating the twofold charge of the CSWG: to make recommendations on alternatives to policing in Amherst and to recommend resident oversight of police. This presentation focused mainly on first part of charge, she said.

The group showed a slide show compiled by a person who wished to remain anonymous and who does not want the slides distributed. The presentation included a video of five police officers handcuffing and arresting a Black woman for a noise complaint and contrasted it to one of police standing by while mostly white college students raucously celebrate a hockey team victory. Owen said that when her foster family has a barbecue, the police come to “calm them down.”

The report states that to ensure an anti-racist response to community safety, the town needs to decrease the need for police in the first place. Owen gave credit to Reparations for Amherst for their research on the history of racism in Amherst. She noted that Amherst’s history begins with the genocide of Native Americans and continued with many of the town founders owning slaves and the redlining of certain neighborhoods during the first half of the 20th century. She asked if an armed, predominantly white police force can provide safety to Black and brown residents. 

The CSWG report claims that the profiling and over-policing of certain Amherst neighborhoods harms those residents. Although the numerous interviews with Amherst residents of color conducted by the 7Generation Movement Collective (7 Gen) consultants contained a few accounts of positive interactions with the police, the majority of the documented interactions were problematic. BIPOC youth feel over-surveilled, and feel the need to look over their shoulders when walking downtown to get pizza, it says.

The CSWG was formed after the murder of George Floyd. One of the goals that the Council set for the Town Manager was to work to end structural racism, and the Council passed a resolution to that effect on December 7, 2020. Through its outreach, public forums, and the efforts of the participatory action research of 7 Gen, the CSWG developed six recommendations to reach these goals:

  1. Create the Amherst Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) program. CRESS would create unarmed two-person teams of social service or mental health providers who would respond to nonviolent situations in place of the police. CRESS could be accessed directly or through 911. An analysis of 911 calls showed that 20% to 30% of current calls could be handled by CRESS. CRESS providers would also be available to do wellness checks. The CSWG conceived of the CRESS program as a 24/7 service, independent of the police, but fostering a cooperative relationship with the Amherst Police Department (APD).
  1. Create a Resident Oversight Board to hear complaints and to oversee the police and CRESS. This Board would need special training and access to police and CRESS records. The CSWG recommends an annual stipend of $10,000 for each member of this Board. 
  1. Create a fully-staffed and well-funded Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with a full-time director and assistant director. The CSWG noted the lack of BIPOC individuals in Town positions. This Department would encourage the hiring and participation of people of color in Town positions and committees.
  1. Walker noted that racial bias causes harm to health through chronic stress, with increased rates of smoking, substance abuse, asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is also evident in the differential access and treatment of the BIPOC community by the health care system. To address these issues, the CSWG recommends the creation of a BIPOC-led Youth Empowerment Center open to all Amherst youth and a BIPOC Cultural Center.  The report notes that 55% of clients under the Department of Children and Families identify as BIPOC and only 35% as white. Latinx students made up 30% of the elementary school population in 2017. The youth center would be fully staffed Monday through Saturday until 6 p.m. and would be a place for young people to go after school, promoting healthful behaviors and social interaction. The BIPOC Cultural Center would be a welcoming place for all cultures. It would also provide connections to services for residents and families.
  1. Reduce the size of the Amherst Police Department by half over the next five years and use the funds saved to support the CRESS program.
  1. Continue the work of the CSWG to participate in the creation of the above initiatives and to explore further needs for combating racism in Town, such as examining APD hiring practices and compiling data to evaluate  CRESS and the APD.

The budget for the CRESS program is estimated to be $1.9 million and for the other programs $1.17 million. Owen and Walker ended their presentation by reading the Town Council Resolution for Ending Structural Racism from December 7,2020 

Councilor Comments and Questions
Brewer asked if there was any way to phase in these requests, especially for the CRESS program. Several members of the CSWG stated that the CRESS program would not be effective unless it was fully-funded with four staff per shift (12 total) and nine dispatchers. Owen said phasing in was ineffective in Denver. DuMont agreed that it would be impossible to implement broad-based plans without adequate funding. Bockelman said he was working on getting more funding and would know more by the Thursday (May 27) Finance Committee meeting.

Steinberg worried that an inadequately staffed Police Department would undo a lot of the work done to combat domestic violence. But Owen said she met with Safe Passage and the APD to analyze the calls to the police. Walker said there is a spectrum of domestic violence calls and research needs to be done to decide which could be handled by CRESS. She added that we need to defund the police to make all members of the community feel safe.

Hanneke noted some overlap between the proposed youth center and cultural center and existing services. She wondered if these programs could be incorporated into the existing programs with hiring of BIPOC staff. She asked how much money would be needed for a pilot for the CRESS program.  She was also concerned about using the UMass police as back up for inadequate APD staffing, since there are also concerns about their behavior as well, and the Town does not ensure that they have adequate anti-bias training.  

Owen reiterated that there would be no phasing in or pilot program for the CRESS program, and that the 26 full-time employees were what was needed for the program. She did say there may be ways to combine some of the dispatcher positions with the 911 dispatchers. As to incorporating the youth center and cultural center into existing programs, Walker emphasized that all those spaces are white spaces, even if BIPOC staff are hired. She mentioned that the CSWG heard many complaints about the UMass police, and that the university population may also want to call CRESS instead of the police.

Bahl-Milne said many of the comments in the report and interviews seemed general, not identifying specific areas for improvement. Sonji Johnson-Anderson of 7-Gen said that they promised confidentiality to their interviewees, and that giving too many details may be identifying. Dee Shabazz, also of 7-Gen, said that the BIPOC community is not only afraid to call the police, but also afraid to complain about them.

Public Comment
Angelica Castro, Lauren Mills, Alex Lefebvre, and Zoe Crabtree all spoke in favor of funding the CSWG requests. Sid Ferreira said we should make this a priority. Caroline Murray noted that while the human services budget of the Town has decreased greatly over the past five years, the police budget has increased by over $1 million.

Michele Miller, co-founder of Reparations for Amherst noted that, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, some communities defunded their police departments immediately without any study. She said Amherst formed the CSWG, which worked diligently over the past six months to collect data and create an alternative program. They have done this, she said, and the Town should act on their recommendations. She urged all to read the report, especially the data on page 11.

Bockelman and APD Chief Scott Livingstone will attend the Finance Committee meeting at 5:30 on Thursday, May 27 to further discuss funding of the CSWG initiatives.

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