Social Justice Committee Frustrated with Absence of Answers to Questions About Turmoil at CRESS.


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Report on the Meeting of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), October 11, 2023

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.

Allegra Clark (Chair), Debora Ferreira, Everald Henry, Lissette Paredes, Freke Ette, Isabella Malmqvist (attended until 8 pm)

Staff: Jennifer Moysten, (staff liaison and Assistant Director, Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)), Asa Stanley-Limler, (Americorps volunteer with the DEI department)

11 members of the public attended
Much of the meeting was devoted to concerns about the ongoing leadership crisis at CRESS (Community Responders for Equity, Service, and Safety) the town’s civilian responder department (see also here) and the difficulty they and the public have had getting information about it. This was also the focus of the last CSSJC meeting, on September 15, as well. 

Earl Miller, the director of CRESS, has been on administrative leave for almost two months and is the subject of an investigation of unspecified misconduct. Recently, Town Manager Paul Bockelman appointed a four-person team to lead the program temporarily under the guidance of Pamela Nolan Young, Director of the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). In addition to Young, the leadership team includes Police Sergeant Janet Griffin, Fire Chief Tim Nelson,, and the CRESS Implementation Director, Kat Newman.

From the outset, there has been opposition from outside and within CRESS regarding a police officer being involved in leadership of the program, which was established as an alternative to the police for providing public safety. 

Three responders have resigned in recent weeks, bringing the number of responders down to five. CRESS has been operating between the hours of 8:30 a.m and 4:30 p.m. even though their optimal and recommended window of operation is 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Town Dispatch has refused to refer calls they receive to CRESS and hence CRESS has only responded to calls that have come in to the department’s own phone number. Much of their time has been allocated to what they have described as “busy work.” 

At their previous meeting, CSSJC members directed a number of questions to Acting CRESS Director Pamela Young and Town Manager Paul Bockelman. A substantial portion of the Town Council meeting of October 2 was devoted to a discussion of the ongoing turmoil at CRESS, and Bockelman subsequently posted a press release addressing community concerns about CRESS. But CSSJC members felt that their questions and concerns were not being addressed and that interim leadership was withholding information rather than using CSSJC as an asset in helping the town to help CRESS resolve its difficulties. Committee members expressed displeasure that neither Young nor Bockelman were at the meeting to address concerns and questions they have been raising, and requested face-to-face meetings with the CRESS interim leadership team and with CRESS responders. These have been tentatively scheduled for October 29 (virtually) and November 3 (in person).

The committee also voiced concern about the posting of a job opening for a mental health “Co- Responder” in the police department. Town Councilor Ellisha Walker had asked about that position last week — why was it created and why hadn’t it been brought to the council’s attention? She also asked if money used for that position should have gone to CRESS. Committee members echoed her concerns.

Bockelman responded to this concern in his press release of last week, saying
“For years, the Amherst Police Department has worked with Clinical & Support Options (CSO), [a Northampton-based organization] that provides mental health services including, most recently, a co-responder housed in the police department. The person who had been serving in this position has resigned and CSO has been recruiting for a new person to fill this role. it is not a town employee.”

Public Comment
Birdie Newman voiced concern about the handling of CRESS Director Earl Miller’s administrative leave and about the involvement of the Amherst Police in the department’s  current management. She spoke in support of maintaining CRESS as an alternative to the police and maintaining the independence of CRESS from the police.

Brianna Owen also raised concerns about the interim leadership of CRESS and about the lack of transparency coming from that team. She suggested adding someone from the Community Safety Working Group (which had developed the original proposal for CRESS) or hiring an interim director.

Kairo Serna, a member of the State Democratic Committee and a student at UMass, said that CRESS is not well known on campus but ought to be. They suggested providing more information about CRESS to the student population. 

Vira Cage voiced concern about the turmoil at CRESS and the lack of information that is being shared with the public. She is worried about the “possibility of enriching the police budget when CRESS is struggling to fulfill its mission.” She called on the Town Manager to be more forthcoming about what’s happening with CRESS and charged that he “is not utilizing the people who care deeply about this issue and are familiar with the vision that led to the creation of CRESS.”

“We should not be surprised as to what is happening with CRESS, as there are forces within town government that don’t want CRESS to exist. Black Lives do not appear to matter in this town.”
Pat Ononibaku

Pat Ononibaku said, “We should not be surprised as to what is happening with CRESS, as there are forces within town government that don’t want CRESS to exist. Black Lives do not appear to matter in this town. People of Color are not well supported. The town protects its white administrators but treats its employees of color differently.” She concluded that the Town Council “needs to do its job and protect CRESS.”

Debora Ferreira met last week with a public health official in Springfield who shared that they are very interested in what Amherst is doing with CRESS and with mental health interventions and how it’s working out and what they can learn in order to begin similar services in Springfield.

She also attended the last Town Council meeting and read a statement from the CSWG raising alarm about the turmoil in CRESS and asking for a response from the council. To this date there has been none. 

In addition, Ferreira noted that Pat Ononibaku had protested at that Town Council meeting, about the inequitable allocation of ARPA funds and about the role that Town Building Commissioner Rob Morra had played in preventing the opening of Hazel’s (a nightclub) while facilitating the opening of the Drake nightclub, and that the Town Manager had chastised her, saying that her criticism of a town employee was out of line. Ferreira said that Ononibaku had “absolutely had a right to raise those concerns on behalf of People of Color in this town” and that it was the Town Manager who was out of line for attempting to silence her.

Finally, she reported that she had attended the memorial for Dee Shabazz and that she and the rest of the committee is still grappling with that loss. There will be a community celebration of life for Dee Shabazz on Thursday October 26 at 5:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, 121 North Pleasant Street.

CRESS Update: Summary of The Discussion
Jennifer Moyston reported that Pamela Young, the interim director of CRESS and DEI Director, was not present because she was doing an orientation with the candidates for Town Council.

Everald Henry asked about the calls that CRESS is currently taking. Moyston responded that CRESS is taking calls that come directly to their own department phone number but the town dispatch is not sending calls to CRESS. Henry asked why. Moyston responded that she thinks it’s because CRESS responders are still being trained to take those calls. Henry suggested that they have been taking training for some time and it had been announced that they were ready to receive calls from dispatch, and wanted to know what was holding things up. Moyston acknowledged that there is a widespread community interest in seeing CRESS take calls on things like noise complaints.

“Nothing is transparent about what is going on.”
Debora Ferreira

Ferreira said she has a number of questions and concerns that remain unanswered. Foremost, she wants to know what have the responders been told the current mission of CRESS is, and how congruent is what they have been told with the mission that CSWG established? She noted that responders signed up to be part of a department that is independent of the police but is now being run by the police, and to be part of a department that is supposed to be doing public safety work but apparently can’t take any public safety calls. How much of what they are doing is busy work, she asked, adding, “I’ve been asking about this for over a month and can’t get a straight answer. We’re losing responders because CRESS is not in line with the mission vision.” She also asked about the BIPOC representation in  CRESS, now that it is down to five responders. She concluded, “Nothing is transparent about what is going on.”

Allegra Clark raised concern about CRESS’s operating hours. “The fact that hours have been changed without notifying the public doesn’t do anything to help the public’s trust of the department,” she said. She pointed out that recommendations from the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) indicated that the period from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. would cover 87 percent of calls received by CRESS, with highest volume coming between 12 a.m and 2 a.m. and with the optimal window for highest call volume to be directed to CRESS from 2 p.m.. to 2 a.m. (see page 35).

Henry asked what is being done to explore bringing in new interim leadership, given how much opposition has been raised to the current interim model. He asked if the current leadership team is engaged in training new leadership. He also wanted to know if the current short-staffing at CRESS was a result of budget shifts and Moyston assured him that the challenges at CRESS were not budgetary and that the town is currently advertising for three new responders. 

Ferreira strongly protested the absence of answers saying that “Paul and Pamela know that CSSJC is deeply concerned about these matters and the community is concerned and no one is here to answer the questions.” “This is really an insult to the community — knowing how important this is to us — and all we get is more delays. For me this is intentional.”

Moyston apologized for not being able to answer the committee’s questions, noting that she does not work with CRESS and that the questions should be directed to Young.

Henry, Ferreira, and Clark requested that CSSJC meet with the leadership team of CRESS and have a separate meeting with the responders. Meetings were tentatively scheduled for October 29 (virtual) and November 3 (in person).

Human Rights Commission (HRC) Report
Moyston provided a summary of HRC events.

  • The Latinx heritage festival sponsored by the HRC was held on September 24
  • A Festival of Light is planned in November to celebrate Diwali
  • The “Train the Trainer” sessions with Barbara Love had 15 participants
  • Asa Stanley-Limler, the Americorps volunteer working with the DEI department, is working with both CRESS and DEI with a focus on youth empowerment and will be responsible for outreach to Amherst area youth to get their opinions on what is needed and desired in a BIPOC Youth Empowerment Center.

Resident Advisory Board
Ferreira asked why getting the Resident Oversight Board (ROB) project started for civilian oversight of the Amherst police is taking so long. She observed that some of this must have to do with the DEI director working two jobs, directing both DEI and CRESS, but said that at this point the delays feel intentional. She pointed out that CSWG used LEAP as a consultant and wondered why LEAP was not asked to respond to an RFP (Request for Proposal)  to provide guidance to the development of the board, considering that “LEAP is already familiar with our situation?” A lot of the groundwork has been done, she said, so why is this initiative at a standstill? Why is the town still in search of a consultant to help develop  the ROB? She again voiced frustration, saying, “No one is here to answer these questions. Again when BIPOC people raise questions on behalf of the community they don’t get answered. Again, this shows that when it comes to BIPOC people, this town places them at the very bottom of priorities.” 

Clark (the current chair) and Ferreira volunteered to co-chair the committee and were duly nominated by Henry and elected unanimously 5-0 (with Malmqvist not present for the vote).

CSO Hire
Moyston offered to invite a representative from CSO to come in and meet with the committee, but noted that since they are not a town employee,  she can’t guarantee a meeting.

Police Chief Search
Moyston reported that there will be more community outreach opportunities to give input for the police chief search and that the search timeline has been extended.

Henry asked that the consultants meet with the CSSJC. Ferreira reminded the group that CSSJC has requested representation on the search committee and has not heard back from the Town Manager.

Moyston confirmed that someone from CSSJC and someone from the Human Rights Commission  will be on the hiring committee for the police chief. Clark said she has forwarded Henry’s name to Bockelman as the committee’s representative but has not heard back. She reiterated that CSSJC wants to meet with the finalists.

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