Public Comment: This Is What Anti-Racism Looks Like. Fully Fund CSWG Recommendations

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Ellisha Walker and Brianna Owen

The following public comment was made at the Town Council meeting of June 21, 2021.

My name is Ellisha Walker, I am a resident of District 5, I work as an executive assistant at a law firm practicing criminal defense, housing law and personal injury,  I am a mother to three young brilliant beautiful black children, I am co-chair of the Commuity Safety Working Group (CSWG)

My name is Brianna Owen, I am a resident of District 1. A Program Director at a local child advocacy agency working with youth aging out of foster care and Co-Chair of the CSWG.

Tonight we are here to speak on the budget presented by the Town Manager to emphasize and remind you of some crucial things before your final vote. 

The CSWG had a two part charge and I’m going to address them one at a time. The first part of our charge was to, “make recommendations on alternative ways of providing public safety services to the community” 

As a reminder, the CSWG was intentional with the recommendations and took a holistic approach to ensure that any public safety response in Amherst  is anti-racist and equitable. We also wanted to offer preventative services that get at the root of assisting our residents to avoid necessitating public safety involvement in the first place. 

As a result our proposed prrecommendations include:

  1. Creating a community responder program (CRESS) that can provide unarmed, non-police responses to non-violent calls
  2. Creating a resident oversight board for the Amherst Police Department
  3. Creating a well-staffed well-funded Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  4. Creating a BIPOC-lead Amherst Youth Empowerment Center and Amherst BIPOC Cultural Center 

I know for many members of the community, the first part of our charge felt uncomfortable. For some community members, maybe even some here, traditional policing has worked for you and it was hard to hear a system that may have served you all, did not serve the entire community in the same way. But the discomfort felt in these past few months while we were developing CRESS, has been discomfort the BIPOC community has felt for generations in this town and we deserve, they deserve better. The CSWG had a unique opportunity to engage marginalized community members who have been historically disenfranchised and others who don’t typically participate in Town government as well as social service agencies and town officials as a part of this work, thus making our approach truly intersectional.

I want to highlight the information Mr. Vernon Jones was able to share with you before this meeting via email. We  have only a preliminary report from LEAP (The Law Enforcement Action Partnership) based on their initial examination of the APD call data and discussions they have had with Chief Livingstone and Captain Ting, but this information suggests that CRESS can play quite a significant role and is worth the investment we are asking for. Investment is a reflection of our values. 

Assuming that our CRESS teams would be teams of two trained experts who respond together: one person with behavioral health experience, and one with mediation experience, they identified call types that could be directed to CRESS.  These include:

·      Assist Citizen

·      Noise Complaint

·      Disturbance

·      Medical/Mental

·      Trespass

·      Well-being check

In 2019 (pre COVID), according to the data from the APD, there were 2453 of these calls or 30% of the total calls to the APD for service from the community. 

  These calls would be screened to ensure:

1.     No presence of weapons or known presence/risk of violence

2.     No urgent medical needs

3.     No crime needs to be reported or evidence needs to be collected

LEAP’s preliminary estimate is that less than 10% of these calls would likely be screened out, leaving a total of approximately 2207, or 27% of all calls to the APD for service, as appropriate for CRESS. The ability of the CRESS program to respond to calls at this rate depends heavily on the number of CRESS responders funded as well as the program being well resourced.

$475,000 is not a sufficient commitment and is a method for failure typical of racist systems. It is vital that this program receive the same intentionality, value, and investment as services that have benefited white and privileged people for so long. We will accept this as a check box for community engagement or recommend a program set for failure.

We’ve had the opportunity to meet with many of you one on one and, as a general consensus, you have expressed your appreciation and support for our work and the CRESS program. We are asking you to fully commit to that by rejecting the budget as proposed and requesting that a new budget be presented that truly affirms your commitment as town officials to the safety of all of its residents by directly investing in it. This is what anti-racism looks like and I urge you to reflect in the shadow of Juneteenth and ask- What precedence are we looking to set?  – what side of history will I stand on? 

We hope that as council members you can commit to resources, staffing and funding that is appropriate in order to respond to the calls that will be diverted and to make this program successful. 

We would also like to address the second part of our charge, which is to make recommendations on reforms to the current organizational and oversight structures of the Amherst Police Department.

We want to remind you how crucial it is that the CSWG receive an extension on the second portion of our work to, as our charge states, “review policies, complaints, and current training practices of the Amherst Police Department”. Almost all of the community is waiting to see what tangible change we can arrive at and how their lives and the lives of their children will improve. Change is not just a written resolution, but an action. They are counting on us, and we won’t let them down. They are counting on you – will you?

The CRESS Program will take months to train staff and get going, and in the meantime, critical changes at the Amherst Police Department need to happen to ensure the safety of all. We ask you, as councilors, to recommend an extension of work as action to the commitment you all made in December. We have seen this done countless times for other efforts in this town and it is unfair and inequitable that we have had to jump through hoops and moving goal posts to make a meaningful impact in our own community. Our Community. We are offering free labor and representation on the basis of love and respect for the BIPOC residents you are accountable to and being pushed away and met with utter resistance.

In your resolution you wrote,  “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Amherst Town Council hereby affirms its commitment to eradicating the effects of systemically racist practices of Town government and Town-affiliated organizations, and will review and revise its policies, procedures, bylaws, values, goals, and missions through an anti-racism lens to foster an unbiased and inclusive environment that is free of discrimination, harassment, and negative stereotyping toward any person or group”  We believe an extension to look critically at the APD’s policies, procedures, and training align with the committment you all made last December. 

Please help us move Amherst forward toward our dream destination. This work has been draining, triggering, and demanding beyond all costs but we will not stop.  We have an obligation to this work and to this community. We are committed, we are dedicated, and we are ready to fight for the Amherst we all know this can be. 

Ellisha Walker is a resident of District Five and Co-Chair of the Community Safety Working Group

Brianna Owen is a resident of District One and Co-Chair of the Communtiy Safety Working Group

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