Town Council Praises Safety Working Group’s Final Report

Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Special Town Council Meeting Of October 25, 2021 

By Maura Keene

This is a report on the first half of the October 25 Special Town Council Meeting. At that meeting, the Town Council and the more than 35 members of the public in the audience were treated to two extraordinary documents from town committees. The report of the District Advisory Board  is a thoroughly studied and complete design for redistributing Amherst’s voting districts on the basis of new census data. The Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) report is the culmination of a year of hard work (that met frequent resistance) on the relationship between the town’s BIPOC community and the Amherst Police Department (APD). This writer recommends that all Amherst residents read this compelling, 75-page report . A summary presentation can be found here.

The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Present

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

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

CSWG Report And Recommendations
The Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) presented its first report documenting the experiences of the BIPOC community in Amherst with the APD in May 2021. That report included testimony from Black residents of Amherst, gathered through participatory action research conducted by 7 Generations Movement Collective. The May report recommended the creation of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) programas an alternative to the Amherst Police Department (APD) for many situations, a town Department of Equity and Inclusion, a youth empowerment center, a multicultural center, and a 50% reduction in the size of the APD.

The second report reaffirmed the initiatives proposed in the earlier report and added detail to the recommended changes in the interactions of the BIPOC community with the APD. The report used an analysis of the APD training and activity gathered by the Law Enforcement Action Program (LEAP). Lisa Tannenbaum of LEAP said her organization examined data on police calls, police activity, and police training, discipline and contracts in Amherst. From that analysis, LEAP recommended that the APD update its use of force policy, remove consent searches, and eliminate pretextual traffic stops (for minor causes) since these actions tend to target people of color.

Tannenbaum also advised that disciplinary actions and complaints against the police be more transparent and that records of decisions on discipline not be expunged after a year. In addition, she pointed out the gendered language in the APD handbook. The APD contract is up for renegotiation in 2022.

The CSWG recommended the creation of a Resident Oversight Board to provide an avenue for public complaints against the police to be evaluated, and that this board should have a majority of BIPOC members since those are the people most affected by police actions. Similar boards exist in Asheville, North Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland. 

In addition, the CSWG felt that only those traffic stops which involve a jailable offense should be handled by the police. Routine traffic stops should be made by CRESS responders. The group suggested trialing a dashboard that would monitor the self-identified race of those stopped by the APD.

Other suggestions were a pedestrian safety committee and an extended discussion and community-wide process in racial healing and visioning under the direction of Dr. Barbara Love. The group also recommended that the APD develop an anti-racism departmental culture and have a member of the department designated to monitor any acts of bias or racism and ensure that the department takes steps to remedy them. And the CSWG recommended reducing the size of the APD by half.

The key emphasis of the CSWG report involved the creation of a successor group, the Community Safety and Social Justice Group (CSSJC), a standing town committee that would oversee the implementation of the initiatives proposed by the CSWG and work with the yet-to-be-named Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to help monitor the progress toward achieving social justice town-wide.

The CSWG presentation ended with the December 2020 Town Council Resolution to end structural racism and achieve racial equity for Black residents.

Councilor Comments And Responses From The CSWG
Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she appreciated the report referring to programs in other towns that could be used as models for the ones proposed here. She wanted to know the rationale behind having both a multicultural center and a BIPOC youth empowerment center, especially with the proposed teen room in the plans for the expanded Jones Library. CSWG member Pat Ononibaku explained that these were two separate programs, both led by BIPOC leaders but open to the whole community. The multicultural center would celebrate diverse cultures and holidays and offer social services to families. The youth center would be a place where young people could gather and talk and listen to music. She did not see how the proposed teen area in the library could be that space.

“I like libraries, but we are telling you that BIPOC residents do not feel safe. Take a pause to see what is important to the town. If we have money for a dog park, we should work to make all residents feel safe. Until that is done, nothing else should be done.” 

—Pat Ononibaku

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) expressed a “heartfelt thank you” to the working group and said that their work will benefit every white resident of Amherst. Andy Steinberg (at large) also appreciated how thorough the CSWG work was. He did have some questions about the collective bargaining rights of the police and the budget implications of the proposed programs. He said the town needs to determine what it can afford, and he hopes there can be a process for the CSSJC to work collaboratively with the town manager to find funding.

Ononibaku responded that it is “when it comes to the BIPOC community that the town worries about its budget.” She pointed out that Amherst committed $15 million to build a library, and said, “I like libraries, but we are telling you that BIPOC residents do not feel safe. Take a pause to see what is important to the town. If we have money for a dog park, we should work to make all residents feel safe. Until that is done, nothing else should be done.” 

CSWG co-chair Brianna Owen said that LEAP provided examples for how policies can be revised and gave examples of other communities that have done so. Many of the CSWG suggestions have no budget implications and can be established in short order.

Evan Ross (District 4) and Alisa Brewer (at large) had questions regarding the Resident Oversight Board (ROB) and its relation to the collective bargaining of the APD and the legality of giving the ROB subpoena power and the ability to hold executive sessions. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the ROB can be instituted now without waiting for the next bargaining period and that the Human Rights Commission now has some of the power that the ROB would have, but he is having the town attorney review the proposal. CSWG co-chair Ellisha Walker noted that the Springfield ROB does have subpoena power.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) pointed out that the town will probably have an empty school building after the elementary school consolidation. She wondered why the CSWG didn’t recommend a preschool or daycare as well as a teen center. CSWG member Deborah Ferreira said that the teens need a place to hang out now—that the youth center was a more urgent need.

Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) wants to make sure the proposals in the study are implemented. She said she and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) are doing a study with UMass and are having a hard time getting participants. Ononibaku said that to get people to give their time and thought, one needs funds to pay them. Owen said participation could be increased by putting marginalized people in positions of responsibility. Pam agreed. She said she is always being offered money or other incentives to fill out questionnaires and write reviews, and informants also deserve stipends for their time and effort.

Public Comment
Many attendees praised the excellent work of the CSWG. Dee Shabazz called it “the most important work” done in the recent history of the town. She hoped those who objected to the CSSJC having a majority of BIPOC members had “come around.” She said that, until the town council reflects more diversity, it is important to have the CSSJC, and for its members to have stipends. She also said that the director of DEI needs to be high up in town government.

Zoe Crabtree pointed out that only 4% of traffic stops resulted in arrests, and traffic calls represented 24% of all police calls. She agreed with the CSWG that most traffic stops should be handled by CRESS responders, as should many other calls to the APD.

Allegra Clark said she hopes the vacant positions on the APD are not filled, so that funds can be freed up for social services. 

Ash Hartwell said the CSWG presented an “amazing report,” but it is just the beginning. He said the hard part is in the implementation, but this is the most important thing the town can do, and the sooner the new committee is in place, the better.

Amara Donovan urged the council to remember its resolution to dismantle systemic racism. She said that Amherst brings resources and bends rules for various projects, but throws up barriers when it pertains to BIPOC residents. She is concerned that the work of the CSWG lies in the hands of the same council that has thrown up these barriers.

Nadine Mazard reminded people that it is election season, and those who have been paying attention to what is happening at these meetings should vote accordingly. She also spoke for reallocating some funds from APD to the CSWG programs.

Anita Sarro agreed that no other issues can have as much impact as the ones presented here. She said that the town is considering encumbering $16 million for the library project, justified in part as a social justice commitment, but these recommended programs could have far more impact for far less money.

Next Steps
Brewer asked what the council can expect to hear about progress on these issues over the next couple of months of this council. She recommends that the topic be on every agenda. Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said the town manager needs to review the charge of the ROB and the council needs to consider the next steps on various recommendations. Owen said that the CSWG members would like to receive updates on the progress toward creating the ROB and can provide help with recruitment. Griesemer also pointed to the need to establish the CSSJC. Ferreira agreed with Griesemer and said she was not comfortable with the gap between the two committees.

The council unanimously acknowledged the receipt of the CSWG report and thanked the committee, town staff and many others who have participated in this effort for their thoughtful and thorough work.

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