Report On The Special Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, November 14, 2022
This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
Councilors in the Town Room: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)Participating on Zoom: Ellisha Walker (at large), Anika Lopes (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3)
No members of the public were present in Town Hall. Thirty were on Zoom.
In the long saga of the Town Council’s attempts to formulate actions for the town to take in response to the Amherst 9 incident on July 5, this was another marathon meeting, lasting until nearly midnight. Councilors did pass a seven-point motion submitted by Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), directing the Town Manager to encourage racial equity and continue steps to create a Youth Empowerment Center and a Resident Oversight Board, but stumbled on more specific actions proposed by Ellisha Walker (at large). After striking several specific action items from Walker’s motion, the council eventually passed, by a vote of 8-5, Walker’s motion to examine certain police protocols and move toward a pro-actively anti-racist police department.
In response to the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 and persistent complaints by BIPOC residents about unfair treatment by Amherst police, the Town Council passed a resolution affirming the town’s commitment to end structural racism in December, 2020 and voted to form the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) to study residents’ experiences in dealing with Amherst police and alternative means of providing public safety services, as well as proposing oversight to the Amherst Police Department. The group produced two extensive reports (in May, 2021 and October, 2021), that were accepted by the Council.
Although the Community Responders program (CRESS) and the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), both recommended by the CSWG, have been created, several of its other recommendations have yet to be addressed. Its successor committee, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) has continued to grapple with the racial inequities in town, as illustrated by the incident in the early morning of July 5 when nine youths, a few of whom were waiting for help with a flat tire, and six of whom were BIPOC, were held by police for an hour and told they “had no rights”.
For the past four months since the incident, the council has struggled with how to proceed, during long meetings on August 16, October 3, October 17, and November 1, but has failed to agree on any response, including a response to the CSSJC’s July 29 letter regarding the incident. Councilors submitted a number of suggested motions prior to this meeting. A legal opinion from Lauren Goldberg of K-P Law maintained that the council’s role in the matter was limited, and that for the most part, the response was within the purview of the Town Manager, Paul Bockelman.
A Hopeful Beginning To The Meeting
Bockelman began the special meeting with a heartfelt apology to the BIPOC community:
“As I reflected back on the past weeks and months since we first learned of the incident on July 5, I want to acknowledge errors that I regret, both on that evening and, more importantly, in the days and weeks since then. While I typically refrain from speaking about matters where there exists a risk of litigation, at this point I feel the need to address this matter, and I feel that this matter is important enough and hopefully will contribute to the long process of building trust.
“First, I think there’s agreement that the police officer’s statement to the minors regarding their individual rights was incorrect. The second officer on the scene recognized this immediately and corrected it, for which I am grateful. The first officer has acknowledged his use of those words and has said that he regrets them. The police chief addressed the matter through the town’s established personnel and collective bargaining processes consistent with his obligations.
“Now, our established processes are important, but is there more to a community than process and obligations?
“I want to talk about what we didn’t do that night and in the following weeks and months. We acknowledged the mistake, but did not apologize to those whose trust we had violated, and failing to do so, we left the impression that this mistake was acceptable in our community. It is not. Our failure, my failure took a negative situation and made it worse. Much time has passed, but that failure still must be corrected.
“To the youth present that evening, I apologize. You should never have a moment’s doubt about your rights or about the obligation of the police department to protect those rights. In all the town services, we need to approach youth with the same courtesy and professionalism with which we approach older adults.
“Second, I want to apologize to the police department. I have great respect for the department and its officers. They are professional and dedicated and work every day and night to make the right decisions in difficult situations. My failure to act quickly cast doubt on the department. That was unfair. Our concern about what occurred on July 5 should not be used to undermine the value of the department’s important service to the town.
“Third, I want to apologize to the Town Council, the CSSJC, and the Human Rights Commission. You have devoted significant time, energy, and emotion to moving us to a safer and more just community. Success requires trust and respect for the new members who bring their own experiences and doubts to the table. My failure to acknowledge our error may have contributed to feelings of distrust, and I truly regret that.
“Lastly, I apologize to the larger community. Amherst is a caring community committed to progress. When public officials make a mistake, you rightly expect us to admit it, take corrective action, and learn from it, and become better. Moving forward, I will be more explicit about how I am learning from this incident, and how the town will improve through the lessons learned.
“I am reaching out to each individual involved in this incident. For the youth, I would like to meet with you individually or with your parents, if you are willing, to help me understand more about the incident and its impact on you. I, along with the DEI director and police chief, are available to meet each of you to understand your experiences, reactions, and ideas for restorative work.
“Our DEI director reminds us that we must have the courage to admit a mistake and act to correct it; and the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation and the capacity to forgive and show grace.”
Council Passes Griesemer’s Motion
Griesemer modified her motion from November 1 (see below) to instruct the Town Manager to work with the DEI director and other staff in consultation with the CSSJC and Human Rights Commission (HRC) to, among other actions, implement a reconciliation plan, establish a Resident Oversight Board for the police, review public safety protocols, explore the creation of a Youth Empowerment Center, look into a justice compensation fund, and provide racial equity training for employees and the public. The time frame for the Town Manager to provide a report on progress was lengthened from two to four months.
Exploration into creating a justice compensation fund was removed from Griesemer’s motion on the advice of the town attorney. The amended motion reads: “To substitute the motion on the floor [Griesemer’s original motion] with the following:
“That the Town Council requests that the Town Manager — working with the DEI Department and other staff:
“1) Propose to the Town Council a plan for community visioning with a focus on public safety and social justice;
“2) Propose to the Town Council a plan for the creation of a Resident Oversight Board, with possible assistance from and hiring, as appropriate, a consultant to help with the development of that plan;
“3) Organize a review of public safety protocols for responding to and handling public safety calls involving all residents including minors, in order to recommend changes to those protocols, if appropriate;
“4) Continue to develop protocols for CRESS regarding active engagement by community responders;
“5) Continue the work already begun on exploring options for a youth empowerment center;
“6) Provide training regarding racial equity, rights, and other options for training to employees and members of the public; and
“7) Develop a communications plan to raise awareness in the community about these efforts; and that the Town Manager will report on actions to be taken and/or progress in addressing the above, no later than four months from the date of this vote.
“Draft reports to be available to the Council, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), and the Human Rights Commission (HRC), as well as the public, no less than two weeks prior to the Town Council meeting where the items will be discussed; that CSSJC and HRC provide written advice to the Town Council 5 days prior to the Town Council Meeting at which the items will be discussed; that the Town Council will discuss the Manager’s report and both committee reports, and will hold a discussion that includes public comment.”
That motion passed 12–1 with Walker voting no.
During the discussion, Andy Steinberg (at large) and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) expressed reluctance to draw any conclusions about the incident on July 5, saying, as they have before, that “the council does not have all the information.” Bahl-Milne added that a Youth Empowerment Center was not relevant to the July 5 incident because it occurred in the middle of the night, and thus the center should not be part of the motion. Walker disagreed, saying the teens involved felt disempowered, so the Youth Empowerment Center, which could provide “know your rights” training and processing of trauma, is central to the community response.
Bahl-Milne then argued that wording in point #6 be changed from “rights” to “rights and responsibilities.” Michele Miller (District 1) pointed out that there are thoughtful programs for “know your rights” training, and explained that they routinely include responsibilities as well, but putting the motion that way “feels very subtly like we’re once again coming back to ‘Well if these youth had done something different, they wouldn’t have had their rights put at risk’, and I stand strongly against that.” The councilors agreed not to add the word “responsibilities” to the motion by a 10-3 vote (Hanneke, Steinberg, and Bahl-Milne voted no).
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said that councilors have heard a variety of viewpoints from residents, such as some wanting more enforcement of noise complaints and some wanting CRESS and not the police to respond to those complaints. She agreed with the need for community visioning.
Anika Lopes (District 4) spoke for letting the director of DEI work to “do what she was hired to do” without the council prescribing too much. However, Walker asserted that work against structural racism must be a collaborative process that cannot be only in the hands of the DEI Director.
In public comment, Vira Cage, Allegra Clark, and Deborah Ferreira urged the town to take steps to implement the recommendations of the CSWG. Ferreira also asked that the police chief apologize on behalf of his department, and urged the town to establish the Resident Oversight Board expeditiously.
Walker Introduces A Different Set Of Motions
Near the beginning of the meeting, Walker said she favors a different approach rather than a single motion that identifies all the next steps to be taken. She suggested breaking the steps that the town should take into five separate motions that can be addressed separately and that build on the specific findings of the CSWG. She noted that the CSWG has already documented the experiences over time of Amherst residents of color with the police and has already looked into alternative forms of providing public safety and monitoring the police. She pointed out that the CSWG hired consultants with town money and had the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) review Amherst Police Department (APD) policies. They also did extensive study of other towns’ alternative policing programs and resident oversight boards. She presented a set of motions, built on specific, comprehensive findings of the CSWG, which she summed up as follows:
- “The Town Council shall issue a statement regarding the situation that occurred on July 5 between two APD members and nine Amherst youth reaffirming our commitment to ending structural racism and dismantling white supremacy.”
- “We shall recommend that the DEI Director consider the 1) scope of responsibility, 2) membership guidelines, 3) complaint procedures, 4) referral to the District Attorney, 5) Ban on retaliation, etc. and that the Finance Committee begin looking at funding for a Residents Oversight Board as recommended by the CSWG.”
- “Recommend that the Town Manager work with the APD to update selected policies and contract provisions. The review shall include but not be limited to:
a. APD contract (which expired June 30, 2022)
b. APD discipline policy
c. Low level and pretextual stops
d. APD contract (which expired June 30, 2022)
e. APD discipline policy
f. Personnel information release policy
- “Recommend that the DEI Director reference the next steps in engaging the town in an extended process of community racial healing and visioning with Dr. Barbara Love, as documented on page 41 of Part B of the CSWG report.”
- “Recommend that the Town Manager assist the APD in developing a proactive, anti-racist culture and that it be documented, regular updates be provided to the Town Council.”
Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) and Miller thought the first motion was a reaffirmation of the December, 2020 resolution to end structural racism. Miller suggested that it be sent to the Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) committee to formulate a statement of reaffirmation, and Walker agreed.
There was concern from several councilors that motions 2 and 4 were “micromanaging” the job of the DEI director (Pamela Nolan Young), although Walker pointed out that CSWG has already done the long and hard work to collect data and produce a comprehensive report. She said the purpose of the motions was for the DEI director to “consider” what was already in the reports and that she was free to reject it if she wanted. Bockelman said the DEI director was aware of the CSWG reports, but he would send a letter to her recommending that she take into account the work and recommendations that went into them.
However, the discussion on motions 3 and 5 was fraught with misunderstanding and disagreement. Bockelman insisted that points d, e, and f be removed from motion 3 because they have to do with contract matters which are between the administration and the bargaining unit. When questioned, he said that the DEI director is not part of the bargaining team. He also felt that the police are being singled out by motion 5 when that statement should apply equally to all town departments.
The vote was 8-5 to remove the three sections of motion 3 (with Walker, Rooney, Pam, Miiler and Taub dissenting. Walker strongly disagreed with Bockelman’s interpretation of motion 5, saying that developing an anti-racist culture is “hugely different” from “not being racist”. Anti-racist policies, she explained, are pro-active, positive policies put in place to prevent racism from occurring and that change the culture of an institution and involve constant work.
Steinberg and Hanneke still took issue with “singling out” the APD for establishing an anti-racist culture. Steinberg argued that several of the young people in the July 5 incident were white and were treated the same as the BIPOC youth. Walker countered that the incident was not unique. The CSWG recommendations predated the July 5 incident and pertained to the APD because that was the department it had been charged with examining. She added, “I’m not bringing this forward to be spiteful, I’m trying to help my community build trust. I’m trying to help my community be better. We talked about having the CRESS Department and how it will be to have an alternative service for those who don’t want to call the APD, but isn’t it still an issue that people don’t want to call the APD? I’m also sick of hearing that just because all of the teens involved weren’t BIPOC, that means it’s not a BIPOC issue. There could have been one BIPOC teen there, and it would have been a BIPOC issue.”
Jennifer Taub (District 3) observed, “People interact with police in a different way than ‘any other’ municipal department. It’s very different from the auditor’s office or the planning department. The police department can affect your life in the most fundamental way possible. We want to do all we can to establish an anti-racist culture throughout the town, but it would certainly make sense to start with the police department.”
Miller agreed, and added, “I really like what Paul [Bockelman] said about [becoming anti-racist] being an excellent goal for the entire community, but it seems to me in these conversations that we are assuming so much fragility on the part of the APD, and that raises a question about what is going on — what sorts of conversations are happening that we’re not hearing about, for the chief of police to be in a position where he feels, for whatever reasons, that he was unable to apologize for the circumstances that occurred on July 5. That tells me that there’s something broken there.”
After a brief recess, the vote on Walker’s last motion (see below) was 8-5, with Cathy Schoen (District 1), Bahl-Milne, Hanneke, Steinberg, and Griesemer voting no. The motion states to : “Recommend that the Town Manager assist the APD in developing a proactive, anti-racist culture and that it be documented, and regular updates be provided to the Town Council.”
The council voted unanimously, however, to adopt a revised version of section 3 of Walker’s original motion. The adopted motion reads:
“Recommend that the Town Manager work with the APD to update selected policies. The review shall include but not be limited to:
a. Use of force policies
b. Consent searches
c. Low level and pretextual stops”
What Was Stripped From The Walker Motions?
- The Town Council will no longer play a central role in seeking to resolve the problems created by the July 5 incident and its aftermath. Having failed to act on the matter for more than four months, the council has handed off the challenges to the Town Manager and appears to be indicating that its responsibilities have been fulfilled other than to receive a report from Town Hall staff.
- The formal role of the CSSJC, HRC, and AHRA [Amherst African Heritage Reparation Assembly], the three BIPOC-majority committees in town government, seeking resolution, repair, and reconciliation, has been minimized/marginalized as a result of adopting these motions. This is, in contrast with Miller’s original motion, proposed on October 17, which gave them a central role. When she proposed her motion, she said that it offered “a course of action to address concerns in a manner that would produce reconciliation and healing and would involve committees that are composed largely of Black and Brown residents, in a community in which an overwhelmingly disproportionate level of power is in the hands of white people.”
- While some original motions, as well as the recommendations of CSSJC, used the language of repair, healing, and reconciliation, all of that language was stripped from the motions that were ultimately adopted.
The meeting ended just before midnight.
Note: this was a confusing meeting with several motions, each containing multiple parts, being discussed, including the appropriate role of the mostly white council in dealing with racial matters. Much responsibility for resolution was placed in the hands of the new DEI director, Pamela Nolan Young, who was not at the meeting to give feedback. Although public comment was minimal, unlike at the November 1 meeting, the meeting still lasted over five hours.