Speakers Urge Town to Implement Community Safety Working Group’s Final Recommendations


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Report on the Second Public Forum of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee on the Status of CRESS, December 2, 2023

The Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) held the second of two public listening sessions on Saturday, December 2, to receive input about CRESS, the town’s civilian responder service. The public forum was held in-person in the Town Room of Town Hall. The first session was held over Zoom on November 29

Five members of the CSSJC attended (Allegra Clark (co-chair), Debora Ferreira (co-chair), Everald Henry, Lisette Paredes and Freke Ette), as did  staff liaison and Assistant Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Jennifer Moyston.  Twelve members of the public participated.  

Translation services were available for speakers of Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. While no one attending this session requested translation services, Allegra Clark emphasized that the CSSJC will endeavor to continue to make them available with the aim of encouraging people for whom English is a second language to feel welcome to come and participate. Clark also conveyed the CSSJC’s vision of having translation services become available at other municipal meetings in order to expand the boundaries of civic inclusion.

The meeting began with each person in the room offering a personal introduction. The forum the observed a moment of silence to honor the late Demetria Shabazz, a former chair of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) and co-chair of the CSSJC. This was followed by a Power Point presentation on the work of the CSWG and the CSSJC presented by the co-chairs, Clark and Debora Ferreira.  The meeting was then opened to public comments from the audience.  

The co-chairs pointed out the final report that the CSWG received from the Law Enforcement  Action Group (LEAP), offered recommendations for implementing CRESS and suggested that CSSJC gather community input on the implementation of the CSWG recommendations. The co-chairs said that CSSJC intends to make the gathering of public input a prominent and ongoing part of their work.

Those who offered comments spoke about safety issues in the town, the need for anti-racist work within town departments, the experiences of BIPOC people and especially BIPOC children, and the differential experiences of white people and people of color in interactions with the police.  Some referred to the murder of George Floyd as a turning point in this country and several spoke of the need for a different model of public safety in Amherst and elsewhere.  Several addressed concerns about the police presence in the Amherst schools as well as the danger of trying to make CRESS “less alternative” so it is more palatable to the town’s police and fire services.

Power Point Presentation Highlights Past Work of CSWG and CSSJC
The CSSJC was formed in 2022 as the successor group to the CSWG.
The final CSWG recommendations (in part A of their report) were:

  • Create an unarmed civilian responder public safety service for the town, (i.e., CRESS)
  • Create a resident oversight board to field and investigate complaints about police misconduct
  • Create a well-staffed office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
  • Create a BIPOC-led youth empowerment cultural center
  • Reduce the size of Amherst Police Department (APD) given the understanding that CRESS would take on 30% of APD’s calls. 
  • Continue the work of the CSWG

The recommendations in Part B in their final report were as follows.

  • Create an ongoing standing successor committee to continue the work of the CSWG
  • Create an ROB
  • Revise and update selected policies and contract provisions of APD including
  • Use of force
    Consent searches
    Low level pretextual vehicle stops
    APD contract issues
  • Create an online dashboard that provides transparent, easy public access to data on APD vehicle stops by race
  • Traffic control and enforcement
    Move traffic control from APD to CRESS, leaving only jailable offenses to APD
    Pilot confirmation of racial identification
    Create pedestrian safety committee
  • Engage town in an extended process of community racial healing and visioning
  • Develop an anti-racism culture within the APD

Aims of the CSSJC

  • Incorporate and continue the work of the CSWG for systemic change
  • Ensure the implementation of all CSWG recommendations adopted by the Town Council and/or Town manager and track progress including for CRESS, DEI, and Youth Empowerment and BIPOC Multi-cutlural center
  • Support the work of CRESS and DEI that addresses the needs of BIPOC and other marginalized groups including disabled, immigrants, and LGBTQIA
  • Assist the town in exploring available resources – such as buildings that might house the Youth Empowerment Center
  • Recommend funding sources including grants focused on targeted priorities for marginalized residents with the most impactful and sustainable projects
  • Ensure that the town implements a robust translation service
  • Provide input to the town manager during the budget process

Ferreira and Clark said they believe the town under-utilizes the CSSJC. They said they were not consulted on the July 5, 2022 incident (where the APD told a group of BIPOC youth that they had no rights) and they said the Town Manager does not attend their meetings. They noted that they seek better communication with town officials, more transparency, and more involvement on the town’s public safety and social justice issues.

Challenges Faced by CRESS
Ferreira and Clark pointed out that the budget for CRESS is insufficient to fund the work that it is expected to do. There are no funds for an assistant director nor for an administrative assistant nor for a sufficient number of responders, which they suggested should have been 12 at startup. CRESS currently has five responders, down from its original eight, and is in the process of filling its three empty spots.  They noted that if CRESS had an assistant director in place when the original director, Earl Miller, left, then they might not be going through the crisis that currently envelops the department. 

They lamented that CRESS is not being assigned calls from dispatch and has been largely relegated to busy work, though according to Town Manager Paul Bockelman, they are slated to begin receiving dispatch calls before the end of the month. They voiced disappointment that there has been little transparency about what is happening within the department under its interim leadership.  They noted that the interim leadership team is problematic, as it is composed largely of representatives from the public safety establishment who may be mistrustful of the CRESS’ alternative approach to public safety.

The said, “We know that CRESS has been an asset to the town and we know that there are things that need to be improved, but we don’t want to lose CRESS. Pamela Young has been pulled from her work in DEI to run CRESS and because of that, the work of the DEI department has suffered.”

They added that they are Looking for a visioning and healing process within the town that includes a much wider range of voices than is typically heard.  They spoke of a need for a statement from the APD that they are embracing an anti-racist approach in their work. And they wondered whether the new police chief would bring an oppositional attitude toward CRESS or work with them in collaboration as an equal partner. They concluded, “We want community responders to be as commonplace as EMT’s who, until several years ago, were not seen as part of public safety teams.

They  reminded the audience that they have posted a survey about public safety issue in town and they asked them to help spread the word.  That survey can be using the  QR code below.

Public Comment
Amber Cano Martin reported that when she went door to door during her campaign for Town Council she discovered that a lot of people don’t know about CRESS or the services it provides and she concluded that the department would benefit from doing a lot more outreach. She noted that CRESS services need to be available 24/7 and that people need to be able to access it directly and should not have to go through the town’s public safety dispatch.  She said that there are a lot of instances where she would never call the police but would seek assistance from CRESS.

Nancy Schroeder, who worked for many years for the Amherst Housing Authority, said that there is a substantial difference in Amherst between people who are home owners and people who rent.  She seconded Cano Martin’s call for more outreach and said that it would be helpful to hold forums in the apartments like Southpoint and Village Park.  

Vira Douangmany Cage said that there is a lot of money flowing into this town but it is not helping people who are in need or who live in the apartments.  She asked, “How do we get the town to acknowledge the need that’s out there and to change spending priorities?” Regarding the APD she added, “There are a lot of people in the community who do not want the police present in their kids’ lives. We hear a lot of praise for cops running these outreach programs in the schools, but do we know how many people really want that?“ She noted that some people are uncomfortable with, if not terrified of, the police. “Where do young people escape that experience?” she asked.

Everald Henry, an attorney whose work includes criminal defense responded, “I think that there is value with having the police interact with your kids.  When I was growing up, I found that things are easier if the cops know you and know your parents, so it’s not that the only time you see the police is when something is wrong.  The police ought to be interacting with the community and not just responding to 911 calls.  They work for the community and should very much be involved with the community.  They work for the community and so should always be responsive to it.  There needs to be accountability.  And there have to be consequences when they are not responsive and accountable.  So I don’t think that isolation is the answer. We should open up the APD like the fire department does and encourage people to drop in and visit.”

Henry also emphasized that he is a big supporter of CRESS. He said that noise complaints often escalate into violent encounters with the police and that CRESS may be better prepared to de-escalate such situations.” He said that he has seen several instances of escalation, where escalation would have been unlikely if CRESS had been the responders

“I think that CRESS should be fully funded.  I’m surprised the police have been resistant to CRESS.  If you read the police reports you see that time and again, they frame these situations as if there is no alternative to arrest.  But police typically don’t bother to get the full story. They take a side and arrest someone and that can bias the entire process. So, I fully support CRESS but I don’t want our kids to be terrified every time they see a cop or a police car,” he said.

He added, “Police culture needs to be changed.  Anti-racist policies and procedures are needed.  Police recognize that not everything can be policed – so at one level, a need for an alternative is apparent to them.  And everyone should be able to see that this will benefit the town – in better process, but also in terms of dollars and cents.  And there’s no intention of putting police officers out of work.  We can shrink the force through attrition (e.g., retirements). We’re not asking for abolition. Adding more police isn’t the solution.”  

He concluded “Historically, police were established to keep Black people in line. That carries over into the present.” Regarding traffic stops he said a traffic stop can be the difference between going home and going to the morgue. “Half of the traffic stops in Massachusetts are not criminal.  So moving this over to CRESS makes a lot of sense,” he said. 

Henry is the CSSJC representative on the police chief search committee and he invited the public to be in touch with him to share their priorities, concerns, and suggestions.

Art Keene commented on the need to fully fund the CRESS and DEI departments and worried that the interim leadership of CRESS, and particularly the representatives of the APD and AFD on the interim leadership team, may find CRESS to be “too alternative,”  may have found the original peer to peer support approach of CRESS to be dissonant with their own vision of public safety, and that this dissonance might account for their efforts to impose a more clinical model of intervention on CRESS.  Keene also noted that the town does not have an address where residents can bring complaints about civil rights violations and expect them to be addressed thoroughly and effectively.  He cited the recent turmoil at the Middle School, centered on discrimination against trans students by both students and staff, and noted that the ongoing harm was only addressed after parents convinced the state to launch investigations.  His complete comments can be found here.

Russ Vernon-Jones, a former member of the CSWG, thanked all who spoke in support of the CSWG’s recommendations to the town, and for keeping those recommendations in front of the public. He noted that Part B of those recommendations are especially important in preparing for the hiring of a new police chief.  He spoke of the recommendation to eliminate low level traffic stops, noting that there are states that have done this to good effect and that at one time, the Town Manger was open to that. He said that this recommendation ought to be embraced by the new chief.

Regarding police in Amherst’s schools, he said that at some point in the past, a community agreement existed that stated the police would not be in the schools. And in recent years there has been an erosion of that understanding without any public conversation about it. “As a white school leader [Vernon-Jones was long-time principal at Fort River Elementary School], I know that I made better decisions when I consulted people of color,” he said. “I’d like to see that become part of the culture of the town – that decisions are not made without consultation with the CSSJC, which is one of the only town committees that is majority BIPOC.”

Regarding CRESS, he said that he fears that it will be maintained but that it will lose the mission and the vision under which it was created. “ There are leaders in town who would like to see it become a subsidiary of the police department and there is a danger in that. The new director needs to be completely independent of the police as does CRESS.   If you understand what CRESS is about – how can you have a police saergent as part of the leadership team and in the office every day,” he said.

Vernon-Jones said he also fears that CRESS could become a social services department. “We need social services,” he said, “but that’s not CRESS’s mission. CRESS might help people find the services that they need but its primary mission is to be a responder program.”

He concluded, “The public needs top pay attention to the budget process, to the ongoing hiring, and to language that has been added to and subtracted from the Town Manager’s goals. This is a pivotal moment in the history of this town. Whether  (previous CRESS director) Earl Miller made mistakes or not, he was not treated properly and this is typical of what happens to leaders of color. We need to maintain a diverse group of responders and that might require hiring a director of color.  Sure, there are white people who can do this, but we must recognize the challenge of doing this.”

Ferreira pointed out that the previous chief of police, Scott Livingstone, was welcoming of the  idea of CRESS, acknowledging that the police don’t always have the background or the experience to de-escalate situations.. The pushback coming from public safety professionals is, she believes, in response to a fear that CRESS is going to reduce their force, that “they are coming from our jobs.”  There are people in town government who want CRESS under the direction of the police or fire departments.  Ferreira said that in hiring a new police chief we need to consider how afraid or intimidated will they be in addressing issues that need to be addressed in the town and she wondered whether  the Town Manager  will tolerate pushback from a director, calling attention to those problems and particularly a director of color.

Andy Beresky, Recovery Advocacy Coordinator at Wildflower Alliance, a mental health support provider for the town, noted the kinds of potential conflict that the peer to peer support model practiced by his agency and also originally by CRESS, can run into when it comes into contact with a traditional public safety model.  “There is a danger that it will be coopted,” he said. “The whole point of an alternative responder service is to break with traditional approaches and that’s what is making APD and AFD uncomfortable.  Elsewhere we’ve seen peer to peer work best when the peer to peer director is of equal standing with other public safety officials. There’s a real danger in subordinating CRESS to the police.”

He added, “Remember that when police do community outreach they still show up armed and that is neither trauma-informed nor anti-racist. Why can’t they leave their armaments behind? The whole point of CRESS is that they are an unarmed alternative.  We need to recognize that the historical relationship of people of color with cops, “ he said.

Henry added “In England, cops are for the most part unarmed and require a special call for an armed response.

Vernon-Jones added that he believes that police officers in uniform in Massachusetts are required to have a side arms

CSSJC leaders said they will continue with outreach into the community and will take feedback on that.  

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