The following public comment was made at the meeting of the Amherst Town Council on October 2, 2023.
With the current situation with the leadership of the CRESS program, I think it is an important time to reaffirm the original mission and purposes of the program and for Town Council to see that its key principles and features are maintained and built upon regardless of how the current situation is sorted out.
Since 2020 when you created the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) to study “alternative ways of providing public safety services to the community” there has been an understanding that sending the police is not always the best response to a 911 call. Many 911 calls do not require an officer with a uniform and a gun. (Some situations are made worse by someone with a gun showing up.). CRESS was designed to provide skilled, trained responders to 911 calls that did not involve violence, weapons, or significant criminal activity.
Secondly, the research of the CSWG confirmed what many of us had known for a long time–that there is a high level of mistrust of the police among black and brown members of our Amherst community. A great many law-abiding BIPOC members of our community feel less safe, or in danger, when the police are around, so much so that they often don’t call 911 even when they need help because they don’t want to risk having to deal with the police.
While CRESS was designed to serve the entire Amherst community, it was also created to increase the sense of safety and belonging for BIPOC members in our community by having an alternative to the police when criminal activity was not involved.
Thirdly, as part of your commitment to eliminate systemic racism in Amherst, CRESS has been an opportunity to create a new town department that was intentionally anti-racist from the start. The CRESS department has a more diverse staff than any other town department. The training of the responders kept anti-racism at its center. We need an anti-racism culture in all town departments, and the outstanding beginning in CRESS must be protected and nourished.
These features are critical to continue in CRESS: it must be an alternative public safety program, that responds to 911 calls whenever armed police are not required, that builds trust and safety among the BIPOC community, and that models what it means to be a town department with anti-racism central to its culture. If it becomes merely a nice way to provide more social services in town, its purpose, vision, and possibilities will be betrayed and many members of our community will feel betrayed.
I also encourage you to investigate why the CRESS responders are still not receiving 911 calls even though the policies, protocols, technology, and training for that have all been in place since January. It is apparently because of the refusal of the dispatchers. CRESS is doing good work, but the purpose for which you created it is not being realized.
Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.