The bulk of the meeting of the town’s Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) on July 28 was devoted to crafting a letter to Town Council requesting a response to an incident in which Amherst police are caught on video harassing a group of young people, the majority of whom are BIPOC.
The letter underscores the need for Amherst town government to take up several of the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group(CSWG) that thus far have gone unaddressed, including the creation of a resident oversight board to provide a safe and effective means for hearing resident complaints about police misconduct. The letter enumerates those past recommendations and reaffirms the need to implement them.
In the committee’s discussion of the letter, committee member Dee Shabazz said that she had been approached by members of the community who have been impacted by the youth/police interactions captured in the video. She reported that considerable concern, fear, and apprehension was expressed in her conversations. Fear of retaliation against those who file complaints remains. One person suggested that perhaps the town needs to establish some kind of liaison who could intercede on behalf of the community so members could remain anonymous but nonetheless seek help.
Committee member Pat Ononibaku asked for police accountability for this incident and incidents like it – especially in the absence of Resident Overight Board. Part of the accountability, she said, is knowing what has happened with the two officers involved in the incident and we don’t know what has happened with them. She reminded the group that the work of the CSSJC is to complete the uncompleted work of the CSWG and that there are many recommendations from the CSWG that have gone unaddressed. She reminded the group that part of the work that remains to be done is healing work and suggested that we don’t talk enough about that.
The letter asks the Town Council to respond to the letter by August 16, 2022 and asks that the CCSJC be given a slot on the Council agenda for the Council’s next meeting on August 15. The full letter follows.
Friday, July 29, 2022
Town Council Members of Amherst:
The members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) have seen the July 5, 2022, video of Amherst Police Department (APD) officers telling a group of majority BIPOC youth that “you have no rights” during their response to a noise complaint call. The U.S. constitution guarantees a person’s rights no matter what age. Our youth did not deserve such mistreatment from APD officers.
To the youth impacted by this event, thank you for your bravery in documenting and sharing the incident despite the very real threat of retaliation. You should not have to shoulder that burden. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which was not the case in your recent interaction with the Amherst Police Department. We hope together we can build a future deserving of all your gifts, time, and energy through the Youth Empowerment Center. We recognize that incidents like this are traumatizing and can impact your worldview and your view of our community. We hope you will find healing through your family, friends, and this community.
The incident captured in this video clearly shows the need to implement the 2021 recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group. The following statement comes from our charge as created by the Town of Amherst and shaped by the work of the CSWG. There are two immediate points from our charge we would like to highlight: 1. The prompt activation of CRESS to respond to future calls of any occurrences that are non-violent, i.e., civil complaints such as noise complaints. 2. The establishment of a Resident Oversight Board that is charged with developing a system of public oversight and accountability of the Amherst Police Department. The CSSJC will be prioritizing these two areas of responsibility considering the recent incident at the Amherst Housing Authority Property, Watson Farm on July 5, 2022.
Effective implementation of these action areas is critical to the new system of community safety we are trying to create in this town. We know the Amherst community wants this and we call upon the town council to demand the town manager and the APD under his authority to support our work.
From watching the video, it is abundantly clear that the work of the members of the CSWG was correct, important, and timely. This incident demonstrates the continued bias, and abuse of power that modern policing forces are capable of enacting. How did the officers’ statements during this interaction line up with training they have received? How soon will the recommendations from CSWG to create an anti- racist culture be adopted? Will there be an apology to the involved families? We hope that when CRESS responders are fully trained, the APD will step back from responding to non-violent calls.
We understand that the Human Rights Commission has called for an investigation into the incident on July 5, 2022. We support this call for accountability. The video only captures 54 seconds of the interaction with the APD; therefore, the entire interaction needs to be investigated. We further ask whether any outreach has occurred regarding these youth and their families by the Town of Amherst? In addition, has the Chief of Police filed a report and issued a statement regarding the abuse of power demonstrated by his officers, and were the officers removed from active duty or suspended?
In line with our charge, we call for the prompt activation of CRESS and the establishment of clearly defined protocols for non-violent police calls and complaints more appropriate to community safety responders. It is important that this body (CSSJC) appointed to continue the work of the CSWG be a part of the creation of these guidelines along with members of CRESS.
In addition, what is the timeline for establishing a Resident Oversight Board in the town of Amherst? Such a body could assist in establishing a means of safely hearing resident complaints regarding police misconduct and help create guidelines for community safety. A safe and efficient means of registering complaints made by residents has been continually neglected in Amherst for many years. A critique made in 2014 by former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis sent to study our APD made this issue abundantly clear and it has remained unaddressed by the APD and the Town.
In our role as the CSSJC, it is important to support the Town of Amherst to reimagine community safety together. Beyond the implementation of CRESS and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Departments, how can we join to care for one another, while avoiding the unnecessary intervention of police?
In 2020, the “Town of Amherst’s Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity for Black Residents” was adopted by the Town Council. These words ring hollow without bold action. CSWG has outlined programs and policies to help shift the culture of Amherst Police and reduce its harmful impact on BIPOC communities. The implementation of CRESS and DEI are a start, but many policy recommendations remain untouched. We reaffirm the following CSWG recommendations:
- Freeze all Amherst Police Department hiring, including any vacant positions until the CRESS Department has been operational for at least six months to determine whether CRESS would be a more appropriate way to resource the community (CSWG, pg. 15).
- Engage the community in Visioning sessions to help heal from systemic and structural inequities.
- Create the Resident Oversight Board to increase police accountability in the community (pg. 13).
- Establish protocols and utilize the CRESS Department in all non-violent calls.
- Eliminate pretext stops, consent searches, and sector-based community policing model to reduce the opportunities for contact between the Police and BIPOC drivers (7GenMC Report, pg. 6-7).
- Create a BIPOC Youth empowerment center under the DEI Department to provide positive opportunities for all youth in a BIPOC-led space.
- In addition, the CSSJC would like to recommend the following:
- The Town should create a victim’s compensation fund shaped and approved by the CSSJC for people impacted by police harassment and over-surveillance.
- Once an investigation occurs, we want the report immediately released to the public.
- Hold “Know your rights” workshops for youth and community members.
While the work of CSSJC “to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and community safety in Amherst,” has just begun, this incident demonstrates however that the road may be rocky and long, if the town lacks commitment. Let us work quickly to utilize the research already published and shared by CSWG to prevent further incidents like July 5th. We do not want our children to suffer for a slowly paced implementation that could prevent harm to our youth and other vulnerable groups in Amherst. We ask that the Town Council respond to this letter by August 16, 2022, and to confirm that CSSJC be placed on the next Council agenda.
Members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee of Amherst
Philip Avila (Co-Chair)
Demetria Shabazz (Co-Chair)