Defund413 Amherst hosted a remote open-forum on November 6, intended to educate Amherst community members on what defunding the local Amherst Police Department (APD) would mean for the town. Despite a small turnout, organizers Zoë Crabtree and Birdy Newman stated at the end of the event that they felt satisfied with the discussion the event fostered.
Titled “Can you imagine Amherst without Cops?”, the event was organized for Amherst residents who may be curious about the idea of defunding the police, but still hold some doubts, such as solutions for violent crimes. Newman kicked off the event by welcoming participants and again stating that the space was meant to foster genuine questions, would respect each individual’s experiences, and would not tolerate bigotry in any form. Lastly, Newman asked for participants’ help in holding everyone present accountable in ensuring the space remains inclusive to all.
Newman prefaced the event by explaining how she views defunding as different from abolition work. While she confirmed that her group was engaged in abolition work and that was their end goal, she explained that “defunding” is a step toward that goal, and is often a more palatable concept to newcomers. Overall, however, the group’s mission is to draw as many funds as possible away from the police department, and instead use those funds to build community resources that can support Amherst residents.
When summing up her vision of a world without police, Newman described a scenario of a homeless person sleeping on a bench. Rather than have that person arrested or questioned by an armed policeman, that individual would be offered support from a community-based department, which would help that person find shelter and support. This is precisely what Amherst’s civilian responder program (CRESS) is designed to do.
To address concerns that some Amherst residents have over whether it’s necessary to defund the police, the organizers presented a short video, “Defund Police”, which explained that the modern policing can be traced back to the slave patrols of the early 1700s in the Carolinas, whose purpose was to capture and return runaway slaves and to ensure that Native Americans did not enter western cities. This is why, explained the “Defund Police” video , people of color are still much more likely to experience violence at the hands of the police, and why white people often cannot relate to these experiences, and why it can be difficult for white people to understand why defunding is necessary. The video also stated that over half the calls police respond to are nonviolent calls, and of the violent calls, all responses occur after the violence has already happened. The video closed off by stating that defunding means recognizing that, at best, the police respond to harm rather than prevent it, which is why local funds are better suited to support community resources such as healthcare, childcare, education, and housing.
Applying these ideas to a local context, Newman said that last year, 93% of calls to the Amherst Police Department were for nonviolent reasons, and then questioned why it would be necessary to address these situations with an armed and uniformed police officer. She brought up the July 5 incident, in which a group of Amherst high schoolers were detained by the police despite the nonviolent nature of the original call.
Newman explained that in 2020–21, the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG),which has since been dissolved and succeeded by the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, worked on envisioning and recommending ways for the town government to implement alternatives to policing (). They recommended establishing the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as well as the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program. CSWG has also pushed for the creation of a Youth Empowerment Center and a BIPOC Cultural Center, and reducing the size of the APD. (Look here and here).
Next, Earl Miller, director of CRESS, presented the department’s establishment and successes over the past few months. He stated that CRESS has been the fastest department to move from announcement, to employment, and finally to functionality. The department was official as of December 2021 and responders were sworn in on July 5, 2022. It has been fully functioning for only 10 weeks, but has responded to approximately 270 calls. Considering it is not yet incorporated into the 911 dispatch system, which allows easier access to services, Miller expressed that he was proud of how quickly it has gained traction in the community. He went on to explain that CRESS is currently staffed by 12 individuals, all of whom have some level of personal experiences with issues such as discrimination at the hands of police or mental health crises. He stressed that last year, 62 violent incidents took place in Amherst, meaning that the majority of calls to which APD responded were non-violent. Miller also explained that they operate on a consent basis, meaning that they only offer support to those who intentionally seek out their help. The goal is to make sure people understand that interacting with CRESS is never something that will get them in legal trouble, and that CRESS is there as an optional support system for those who need it, he said. Miller left the meeting following his presentation on CRESS.
The general discussion that followed the presentation first touched on the need for the Youth Empowerment Center. One participant explained that in her town many parents had to work, meaning that children during the summer were left to roam free. She explained that, in her belief, having a center for them to gather in would reduce their sometimes unruly behavior, and give them a space to express themselves freely and make social connections. Newman and Crabtree both agreed that the Amherst context is similar.
Newman explained that APD and the University of Massachusetts Amherst police partner up in the summer to provide a free summer camp. This led to a participant warning about such programs, mentioning Sandra Birchmore, who, according to the Boston Globe, (To get past paywall: https://archive.ph/tpDlX) committed suicide after discovering she was pregnant following a sexual assault involving three Stoughton policemen at a police-operated summer camp. The participant said that since hearing the Sandra Birchmore story she has been wary of police programs such as summer camps. Newman and Crabtree both said that the work they are doing now to defund the police is to prevent similar situations from happening in Amherst.
At the end of the forum, Crabtree explained that a public meeting on the FY’24 budget will be happening on Monday, November 21 at 6 p.m. They encouraged participants to attend the event, explaining that these meetings often don’t get much public comment, meaning that everyone’s voice matters all the more. They also stated that Defund413 will likely host another meeting similar to this one in the spring before the budget hearing.