Social Justice Committee /DEI Director Clarify Differences About Police Engagement With BIPOC Youth

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Report of the August 23 Meeting of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here

Allegra Clark and Dee Shabazz (Co-Chairs), Pat Ononibaku, Philip Avila, Debora Ferreira, and Freke Ette.

Staff: Pamela Young (Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)

Town Councilor liaisons: Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Dorothy Pam (District 3)

Debriefing On Town Council’s Handling Of July 5 Incident Between Teenagers And Police
Public comments from Julian Hynes, Jay Smith Crooks, and Vira Cage voiced concern over the town’s interpretation of the July 5 incident between nine teenagers and two police officers after a noise complaint. A brief video shows the officers threatening the youths, telling them they have “no rights” and refusing to let them call their parents. The Amherst Police Department (APD) has not finished its investigation, but Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Director Pamela Young submitted a report to the town manager saying that the officers were wrong in stating that the youths had no rights, but there had been no abuse of power.

At the August 16 Town Council meeting, members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) criticized the report as being incomplete. The comments made by the public at this meeting of the CSSJC concurred. Hynes said he knows the youths involved. He said they were already hurting because they had a flat tire. They did not deserve to be harassed by the police. Smith Crooks agreed that the police had abused their power and that this treatment was not the way to set a standard for young people to grow up to be leaders with integrity. Cage wanted to remind the young people that they are being heard and that the incident appears differently depending on who one is.

Pat Ononibaku said the presentation at the council meeting minimized the gravity of the situation and normalized police harassment of BIPOC youth.

In reviewing the nearly four-hour discussion at the council meeting, CSSJC member Debora Ferreira noted that committee members were left out of the initial presentation, just as the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) was left out of the Finance Department’s discussion of the budget for their programs in May, 2020.  She was frustrated that the CSSJC has not received a response to its July 29 letter to the council about the incident and that there were many gaps in Young’s report, which did not have any input from the families involved.

Pat Ononibaku said the presentation at the council meeting minimized the gravity of the situation and normalized police harassment of BIPOC youth. She noted that councilors seemed to accept the report until the CSSJC members raised their own concerns. She said she has been in contact with three of the families involved, who said they don’t feel comfortable speaking to the police, and would rather speak to community members. She also criticized a comment made by Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), who again said she has heard from unnamed  “Black people and white people who do not agree with the CSSJC”  without specifying how many people she is referring to or what their concerns are. Ononibaku said that ‘this type of comment undermines our work”.

CSSJC Co-Chair Allegra Clark also wished the meeting had been more collaborative and that there would be a plan for concrete steps in the future. Philip Avila said that the town created the narrative by presenting first, but there was no definite plan for future changes, only a message from Council President Lynn Griesemer that “We care.”

However, CSSJC member Freke Ette asserted that the discussion was valuable in that it publicized the incident and began the conversation. He noted that sometimes success takes time. He agreed that Young’s report was incomplete, but wanted to avoid being confrontational in criticizing it. 

Co-chair Dee Shabazz noted that all CSSJC members stated that the committee is looking for follow up, including a response to the July 29 letter. She was gratified that the CSSJC changed the narrative in the council discussion by its presentation, pushing some councilors to ask more critical questions about the report. The committee agreed that Shabazz and Clark will draft an email to the councilors to request a response to the CSSJC concerns and to have the committee return to a council meeting in October. Shabazz stressed the need for the committee to present a united front in expressing its concerns to the council.

Obtaining Input From Families Involved In the Incident
Ononibaku said that she has been in close contact with several of the families involved in the incident. Two families have requested that their experiences be included in the report. They are concerned with how their children were treated and want the two officers to apologize. However, they do not want to make their statements to the police. Another family wants to submit a statement in Spanish. Avila said that members of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) can do a Spanish translation.

Young said she does not have the authority to conduct an investigation of the police, only the Police Department can do that at this time. The HRC can act on a complaint, but Young can only review the information that has been submitted to the APD or the HRC.  The state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST) can also accept complaints about the police.

Several members of the CSSJC were confused by this information. Ferreira thought that Young’s report was the town’s response to the incident, but Young clarified that it was only a compilation of available information, and that the official investigation from the APD is still pending. She said if residents want information included in the final report, they should submit it to the APD which Ononibaku said the families were hesitant to do. This conundrum pointed out the urgent need for a Residents’ Oversight Board (ROB) to review police actions.

Young said she and Assistant DEI Director Jennifer Moyston have been working hard to get the department off the ground. They have met with many groups around town. Since the ROB seems to be a priority for the CSSJC, they have prepared a draft of how the ROB would function. Several CSSJC members expressed a desire for a liaison to the DEI department and to CRESS to be involved in the creation of documents and processes before they are presented to the whole committee or to the town. Clark thought that early input would help streamline the committee meetings. Young said she would discuss the matter with the Town Manager. 

The committee requested a brief report on the activities of the DEI Department and the CRESS program at its monthly meetings.

ARPA Funds Are A Possible Source of Funding For BIPOC Programs
Ononibaku noted that looking from an equity lens, the Business Improvement District (BID) received a generous allocation of $550,000 from American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds while Amherst businesses most impacted  by the pandemic  only received $25,000 for distribution and $40,000 for new start up businesses. Another $2 million is slated to be awarded in the fall, and social services is one category that qualifies for ARPA funding. She said some of the initiatives recommended by the CSWG, such as a BIPOC youth center or a multicultural center could merit some of these funds. Because of time constraints in applying for this money, she suggested that the CSSJC meet twice a month during September and October. Meeting dates were set for September 7 and 28. 

Proposed Council Changes To Streetlight Bylaw Have Social Justice Implications
In public comment, Thomas Carswell who recently moved to Amherst, called the proposed change in the bylaw regarding streetlights to the attention of the committee. The changes proposed by Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) involve decreasing the number of streetlights in areas of low traffic. The bylaw changes have been referred to the Town Services and Outreach Committee of the Council.

Clark noted that some of the streetlights slated for removal under the proposal are along East Hadley Road where there are numerous apartment complexes and a high concentration of BIPOC residents. She recommended that committee members keep informed as to the changes suggested.

It’s Not Dr. Young
At the end of the meeting, Young corrected committee members who referred to her as “Dr. Young.” She said she has a JD, not a PhD and therefore is not a “doctor”. 

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3 thoughts on “Social Justice Committee /DEI Director Clarify Differences About Police Engagement With BIPOC Youth

  1. Re: Proposed Council Changes To Streetlight Bylaw. So, apparently there are not enough immediate issues facing the Town/Council. Why vigorously address the current disrepair of the roads and sidewalks themselves, when a few people have decided that time, energy and money should be spent NOW on a total revamping of the street lighting system. I’m curious to know just how many tax-payers requested this and on what street each lives. Once again, the priorities of a few for the many?

  2. Sure she doesn’t have the legal authority… but she didn’t need to use her station to imply no wrongdoing on the part of APD either. All she did was mollify some of the councilors and the town manager, protecting the status quo and avoiding an opportunity to hold APD accountable for exactly the kinds of harms we’ve been discussing for over two years now.

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