On October 17, an obscure and poorly-constructed provision of the Amherst Home Rule Charter was used by Amherst Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke to abruptly shut down dialogue between the Town Council and the Community Safety & Social Justice Committee (CSSJC.) This move, which did not require a vote by the Council, enabled Hanneke, with all signs of support from Council President Lynn Griesemer, to unilaterally postpone discussion about the Amherst Police Department’s response to a call at the Watson Farms housing complex on July 5. When Hanneke blocked the dialogue, a motion from Councilor Michele Miller was on the table to refer the July 5 incident for further study by the CSSJC, the Amherst Human Rights Commission, and the Amherst Heritage Reparations Assembly.
The Police Department’s handling of the incident, which stemmed from a noise complaint, and their treatment of nine juveniles who were asked for identification, has yielded lingering questions. In a brief cell phone video taken by one youth that night, an officer clearly states, “you don’t have rights.” A parent’s account indicates that the juveniles were not even together prior to police arrival at Watson Farms, and instead belonged to separate groups, at three different houses within the complex. Questions have arisen about whether the youths were detained unwillingly, if such detention was lawful, and why the mother of one was not allowed to drive the youths home as she offered.
A full week after watching the October 17 Town Council meeting, I am disturbed by Ms. Hanneke’s action, not just because it was rude and disrespectful to those serving on the CSSJC, but because it derailed an important conversation which the Town of Amherst, and municipalities across the U.S., must have. That discussion, which needs to be ongoing, is about appropriate police response, public oversight of police departments, and creation of alternative public safety services.
We are all aware of the desperate, long-overdue need for criminal justice and police reform across the U.S., and that the existing system has often been unjust, and even criminal, to people of color. We know that the “War on Drugs” first launched by the Nixon administration was in fact designed to suppress both the Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” John Erlichman, former Nixon domestic policy chief, stated in an interview published in 2016.
In the 1990s, when I was a young newspaper reporter, the pressing need for police reform was clear, and I recall optimistic public discussions about “community policing,” and a brief movement to deescalate relations between police and the public. Sadly this exploration of reform vanished after 9/11, when the federal government offered city police departments military surplus equipment. Our nation’s confused response to the terrorist attacks led to even greater surveillance and suspicion of people of color than before.
In the Springfield courts where I worked, the order of the day always included arraignment of many young men of color on marijuana possession and distribution charges. They were often represented by well-intentioned but harried public defenders, and frequently pled guilty to slightly reduced charges in order to avoid a long wait for trial. Those guilty pleas nonetheless tarred men of color with criminal records, affecting their job opportunities and higher education prospects. Conversely, young white men arrested on drug charges often had private attorneys. I was sometimes present when judges were persuaded that white youths before them had made understandable and forgivable mistakes, which should not be allowed to derail their successful trajectories in life.
In recent years, the list of Black and Hispanic men exonerated through DNA testing, after having been wrongly convicted of violent crimes decades ago, has grown exponentially. We’ve all read articles about men who spent the lion’s share of their lives in prison, for crimes they could not have committed.
Our defective, costly and cumbersome criminal justice system is not good enough, and meaningful reform will require changes at all levels, from altering the practices of local police departments to better oversight of county prosecutors, and measures to make sentencing equitable for those convicted.
Amherst, as the heart of the Five College system, has a great many educated and intelligent people among its residents, and has at times been a beacon to the state, and even the nation, in its actions. I am proud that Amherst, following the work of the Amherst Heritage Reparations Assembly, has become the first municipality in Massachusetts to dedicate a small funding stream to the cause of repairing decades of social and economic injustice.
Amherst can and should lead in pioneering new and better public safety models. Developing such models will require data, and full police department cooperation in the provision of it. No publicly funded entity is allowed to operate with the impunity now granted to police departments, and reform will also ultimately require establishment of citizen oversight boards. As taxpayers, we deserve to have a voice in how public safety practices and services can improve.
It is my hope that the Town Council, when it meets with the CSSJC again on November 1, will not shy away from the ongoing, open, informed dialogue which must get underway.
Marla Goldberg Jamate is a resident of Amherst