After two successive meetings filled with fraught exchanges on June 24 and July 1, Town Manager Paul Bockelman has acceded to the request of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) for more time to complete their work and has established a new deadline of November 1, 2021, after which the committee will be dissolved. The committee has, since their inception, voiced concern that the deadlines imposed for completing their assigned work. were unrealistic. The committee presented its report on the first part of their charge, to the Town Council at the Council’s May 24 meeting . Part I of their charge is
” to study the complex issues of delivering community safety services – currently provided through the police department and other means –to ensure racial equity, and produce a report for the Town Manager on alternative options to public safety services currently provided by the Amherst Police Department.”
That work resulted in the adoption of a proposal for an alternative responder program in Amherst, the Community Response For Equity, Safety, and Service program (CRESS). Town Hall staff have undertaken the work of implementing the program. Town Council has instructed Bockelman to have CRESS staff hired by February 1, 2021.
The remaining work for CSWG involves producing a report for the Town Manager on recommendations for a resident oversight board for the Amherst Police Department (APD) and for policy reforms for the APD. CSWG also continues to advocate for the recommendations made in their first report including for the creation of a Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a youth center, and a multicultural center.
For the past several weeks CSWG have been advocating for an extension, noting that there is just too much work to be completed by the original deadline of September 1. They have argued that consultants will be needed to advise on many of the technical questions concerning police policies and legal constraints and requirements associated with citizen oversight of the police and that it is unlikely that a consultant could be brought on board prior to the original September 1 deadline. Bockleman felt that the CSWG could complete their work without the assistance of consultants and that even if consultants were needed, that their work would extend well into the next year and hence, for the sake of continuity, it would be better if that work were contracted by whatever successor body takes up the work of CSWG.
CSWG argued that it is important that there be continuity between the existing committee and its successor so that the knowledge that the current group has acquired and the relationships that the committee has established with the BIPOC community are not lost to the successor group and so the new will group will not have re-do much of that work for themselves. Hence, they argued, it would be better if CSWG continued its work until a successor group is established.
After considerable discussion, Bockelman offered CSWG an extension until November 1 to complete the second part of their charge. Last week, Town Council had recommended that the group be allowed to continue their work until November. CSWG members asked about the possibility of an extension beyond the new November deadline but Bockelman was unwilling to discuss that possibility.
CSWG will now endeavor to get as much done as they can by the November 1 deadline and at their next meeting (7/8) will assess and prioritize what they can/want to do in the time they have remaining. CSWG also hopes to consult with the town procurement officer in the coming days to see if they can expedite hiring a researcher outside of the RFP process to collect limited, specific information on ressident oversight policies At their meeting on June 24, the committee had divided work among members to look into a number of elements to inform their second report including including establishing a resident oversight board, non-police approaches to traffic control, APD policies and procedures, and recommendations for the work of a successor group. It remains to be seen whether they will narrow the scope of their work with only four months remaining in their tenure.
While there have been frequent references made by both the Town Manager and the CSWG to a successor group that would continue some aspects of the work of CSWG after it is dissolved, there has not yet been any explicit discussion of what the successor group will look like, who will create it (Town Manager or Council), what the scope of their charge will be, whether it will be in addition to a resident oversight board, and when it might be created or get started. Bockelman said
” We know there will be some kind of oversight board that will focus on public safety. That’s one of the two major components of the Working Group’s charge. But I could see the need for another successor group that would form to support other Racial Equity work in the Town. I would like to get a DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) Director on board to help conceptualize that group and welcome the insights offered by the CSWG or anyone else. “
Reaching An Agreement
Members of The CSWG and Bockleman spent 2.5 hours at the July 1 meeting going back and forth on the merits of extending the work of CSWG, struggling to find common ground with the Town Manager, and reprising many of the concerns voiced at previous meetings. All parties seemed to agree that the work of the CSWG turned out to be much more expansive than anyone anticipated at the outset. And all seemed to agree that much had been learned from their work and that the recommendations of CSWG ought to be implemented. But the parties struggled to find agreement on the role that the CSWG would play moving forward.
Committee members repeatedly asked why it was so urgent that the committee be dissolved and wondered why their work couldn’t continue until the successor group is established so that there can be a smooth transition. As they had in the past, they also emphasized the context that gave rise to their work – a long record of harassment of BIPOC people by the APD and a pervasive mistrust of APD and of Town Government within the BIPOC community. Committee members stressed the need for continued BIPOC leadership in the work of establishing a Resident Oversight Board and for fulfilling the other recommendations of the CSWG.
Bockelman argued that there are myriad details that must be resolved and studied before any of the CSWG recommendations can be implemented and that cannot be reasonably accomplished in the time remaining or even within a modest extension. He suggested that the additional work that CSWG was proposing to undertake would require much more than a few months to complete. He emphasized that the CSWG was envisioned as a temporary committee and that they have done an admirable job in setting the table for substantial changes in how the town operates. It is time for them to wrap up their work and turn it over to professional staff and to a more permanent successor committee. He reiterated his hope that members of the CSWG would continue to work with Town Staff on implementation and that some would become members of the successor group.