Report Of The Meeting Of The Community Safety And Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), September 13, 2023
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
Allegra Clark (Chair), Debora Ferreira, Freke Ete, and Everald Henry. New members Lissette Paredes and Isabella Malmqvist have been approved by the Town Council but have not yet been sworn in. They observed, but could not vote at the meeting.
Staff: Pamela Nolan Young and Jennifer Moyston (Director and Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)
Tribute Paid To Demetria Shabazz
CSSJC member Debora Ferreira noted that community leader Dee Shabazz died on Monday, and that the loss to the community will be profound. Among her many roles, she was a leader at Amherst Media and founded the community consulting group 7 Gen Movement Collective that provided valuable information to the Community Safety Working Group in its report. She was also an organizer of the town’s Juneteenth celebrations and a member of the executive board of the Progressive Coalition of Amherst. Others shared during public comment their gratitude for Shabazz’ invaluable contributions to work for justice and equity in the community. The Indy will post a tribute to Shabazz in next week’s issue.
The Status Of CRESS
DEI Director Pamela Nolan Young gave a report on the town’s civilian responder program (CRESS), which has been operating for the past year. CRESS Director Earl Miller has been on administrative leave for the past five weeks. Although Young could not comment on personnel issues concerning his leave, she did say that an interim leadership team has been formed to direct the program in his absence. This team consists of her, CRESS Implementation Assistant Kat Newman, Fire Chief Tim Nelson, and Police Sergeant Janet Griffin. The group had its first meeting on September 13.
Young said that although public safety is not her area of expertise, she will be the ultimate decider in matters of CRESS. This arrangement is made easier by the move of the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to an office in the Bangs Center next to the CRESS office. She plans to meet with each of the eight CRESS responders individually over the next week.
Now that new contracts for the Amherst Police Department (APC) have been finalized, some of the obstacles to CRESS responders taking 911 calls have been removed, and Young hopes they will begin ride-alongs with the APD. Details with the dispatchers still need to be worked out before the responders can begin to answer 911 calls. She said the leadership team will be working on getting policies and protocols in place.
She added that the human resources issues that resulted in CRESS responders not receiving their annual pay increases and overtime differentials have been resolved after a meeting that included the SEIU union representative and the town’s HR Director.
CSSJC Members Express Grave Concern
Debora Ferreira said she was extremely concerned about what has been going on since Miller was put on leave. She expressed dismay that the investigation, apparently into alleged misconduct by Miller, is taking way too long, and CRESS has been left to flounder. She also was upset that the leadership team includes the police and fire department, and wanted to know why a CRESS responder was not on the interim leadership team, noting that the police and fire departments had expressed “resistance” to the formation of CRESS in the first place. She worried about new policies changing the mission of the department. She said she realizes that CRESS must collaborate with EMTs and the Amherst Police Department (APD), but doesn’t want those groups to make policies for CRESS. Ferreira also worried that Young was being set up to fail by having new duties added to running the understaffed DEI department.
Everald Henry agreed that law enforcement should not be on the CRESS leadership team. He asked why there was no “number two” person at CRESS, and noted that taking 911 calls should be a crucial part of CRESS’s work. “That’s how you do intervention,” he said.
CSSJC Chair Allegra Clark said that, as CRESS was envisioned by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), the precursor committee to the CSSJC, there would have been three shift supervisors, three dispatchers, a program assistant, and 12 responders in addition to the director. She noted that underfunding and understaffing of the program has led to a lack of leadership when the director is not available or the position is currently vacant. She thanked Young for taking on the added responsibilities and suggested that she contact some of the members of CSWG for advice and support.
Public Also Voices Concern About CRESS
The co-chairs of the CSWG also expressed concern about the future of the CRESS program. Brianna Owen thought that involving the police in leadership of the program could be damaging to its long-term health. Ellisha Walker (now an at-large town councilor) said that, as a new department, it is not surprising that problems have arisen, but she is worried that its mission will change with the increased involvement of the police.
Nadine Lazzard and Pat Ononibaku were both concerned that too much responsibility has been placed on Young, and that the situation (of CRESS operating without a director) needs to be settled ASAP. Mary Custard said that CRESS has been working in the high school this school year. Responders are helping set up “intervention Saturdays” for students with behavioral issues to think about their behavior and also do community service.
Young announced that Asa Stanley Kimmler is an Americorps volunteer who will be working with the DEI Department and CRESS Monday through Thursday. He will be concentrating on youth programming with the goal of working toward creating a Youth Empowerment Center. When asked about the possible location of the center, Young said it is up to the town manager to locate a site. She has considered the Jones Library and the Bangs Center, Also, she has suggested the now-vacant storefront of AJ Hastings, but the owner apparently has other plans for that building. Ferreira emphasized that it is important for the Youth Empowerment Center to be youth led and that the Americorps volunteer connect with Amherst’s youth. Henry thought that introducing the idea of a youth center at the high school and middle school would be a good way to get input from young people; Mary Custard said that the recent listening session on the police chief search at the high school was not well attended.
The DEI Department is also sponsoring a two-day seminar on community facilitation, led by Dr. Barbara Love on September 25 and 26 from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Bangs Center. About 14 people have registered so far, but they are hoping to have 25. Register here. Dinner and childcare will be provided.
In addition, the department is sponsoring a LatinX heritage celebration on the Town Common on Sunday, September 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. There will be salsa dancing, music, and crafts for children. There will be a table at the annual block party on Thursday, September 21 with representatives from the DEI, CSSJC, and Human Rights Commission. Also, Young and Assistant DEI Director Jennifer Moyston are continuing with DEI training of all town departments. They will also attend the neighborhood resource meetings sponsored by UMass on September 14 and 19.
Young is reworking the request for proposals (RFP) for a residents’ oversight board (ROB) to evaluate police actions. (There were no responses to the RFP issued earlier.) The new RFP will stress the need for technical assistance and training. Funds for the oversight board are in the FY2024 budget.
Police Chief Search
Owen stressed the need for the CSSJC to be involved in the search for a new police chief. Referring to the beating of an elderly Black woman in Northampton recently, Henry noted that Northampton has a new police chief, but the culture of the department remains the same and that it is important to change the culture.
The members of CSSJC want to meet with the consultants for the police chief search as a group. They hope to include members of the CSWG as well. Clark will reach out to the consultants to schedule a time for a virtual meeting. Ferreira said it will also be important for the BIPOC community to meet with the finalists when they are chosen. Young thought that members of the CSSJC and HRC would be on the police chief search committee.
Discrimination Against Hazel’s Nightclub Decried
In public comment, both Ononibaku and Walker decried the fact that the opening of Hazel’s was delayed by eight months, because the building commissioner had insisted that there be ramp access to the stage while allowing the Drake to open with a temporary ramp, and said that the loss of eight months of revenue while still paying rent had caused the business to fail. Walker said that the situation was an instance of blatant racism and pointed out that there is no way for residents and businesses to submit complaints of this sort to the town. She said, “The town owes Hazel’s.”
The meeting adjourned at 9:30. The next CSSJC meeting is scheduled for October 11. The committee requested that the Americorps volunteer and the interim leadership group for CRESS attend.