Social Justice Committee and CRESS Interim Leadership Spar over Future of the Program


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Report on the Meeting of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee. December 13, 2023

The meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded.  The recording can be viewed here.

Allegra Clark (co-chair), Debora Ferreira (co-Chair), Everald Henry, Lissette Paredes, Isabella Malmqvist, and Freke Ette

Staff: Jennifer Moyston (staff liaison and Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), Pamela Nolan Young (Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Interim Co-Director of CRESS), Tim Nelson (Fire Chief and Interim Co-Director of CRESS),  Asa Stanley-Kemler (AmeriCorps Volunteer in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)

Meeting Summary
Most of the meeting was devoted to questioning two members of the CRESS interim leadership team, Pamela Nolan Young and Tim Nelson, by members of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC).  CRESS, which is currently operating with only five responders and without a permanent director, is slated to finally begin taking calls from the town’s public safety dispatch on Monday, December 18 and operate between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., after waiting months for the town to be ready for this expansion. Even so, CSSJC members raised concerns about the limited scope of work that was to be assigned to CRESS responders and conveyed their impression that interim leadership was moving CRESS away from its mission as envisioned by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), as a civilian responder service that would serve as an alternative to armed policing. CSSJC’s concerns that interim leadership was trying to re-invent CRESS in the image of more conventional public safety branches and make it more palatable to public safety professionals in town was dismissed by Nelson, who argued that in the interests of safety, CRESS needed to begin with small and safe duties, but would eventually grow into the department it was intended to be. Young assured the CSSJC that she was doing everything in her power to “get CRESS to where it needs to be,” noting that “we are not unaware of the desires of the community.” She also expressed frustration at trying to fulfill the demands of what amounts to two full-time jobs, and said that the DEI office has suffered because of the demands of her work for CRESS.

CRESS Update
The update began with a Power Point presentation (beginning on page 3 of the packet) on plans for CRESS service under dispatch . Nelson presented a list of  the types of calls for which CRESS would be dispatched (see table below), and a long and heated discussion about it ensued.

Debora Ferreira wanted to know why the types of calls are so limited.

Nelson responded that those are the call types that represent “the least amount of danger to a responder,” and said that he was relying on accumulated data to back that up. He added that noise complaints and disorderly conduct complaints have some degree of danger or potential violence, and although they might be down the road for CRESS, he personally thought it to be unlikely. 

Ferreira countered that, saying, “The Community Safety Working Group recommended that any call to a non-violent event should go to CRESS.  The July 5 incident is a good example. That would have likely turned out differently if CRESS had been the responder. I don’t accept the recommendation that noise and disorderly complaints are not appropriate. So show me the data.” 

Nelson said, “We have to draw the line somewhere, we have to start somewhere, so we’re starting with the events that are least likely to be violent. This is all new for us — so we will start smart and start small, and we’ll grow.” He did not cite any of the data he’d referred to earlier, and instead added, “We have a lot of experience here and we want to make this work and in our professional opinion this is the way to get this to work.  We’re building this so this is sustainable.”

Everald Henry, a criminal defense attorney, talked about the tendency of police to escalate in situations like noise complaints. He said that he appreciates the need to start small and see what happens but he believes that noise, disorderly, and trespassing complaints are small things to start with.  

Nelson disagreed, saying, “Maybe some noise complaints don’t escalate precisely because the police are there. Will college kids listen to an unarmed civilian? Bottom line is we made our best decision on how to start. The important thing is that we are starting and we’ll learn from that.”

Henry countered, “The whole point of having an alternative service is that they can say ‘I’m here, and the police aren’t here.”  He asked whether the interim leadership team had solicited any feedback from the CRESS responders on how they feel about the proposed startinpoint.

Pamela Young said that the interim leadership team has been discussing the nature of initial assignments from day 1. In addition, they had expanded  their original list of types of calls following conversations with the responders. She emphasized that responders will  be involved in every decision about types of calls that they will take, as will dispatchers.

Henry voiced concern that the call types focus exclusively on mental health and have nothing to do with alternative approaches to law enforcement, but

Nelson felt strongly that  expansion of call types should be done in consultation with the other two arms of public safety, the police and fire departments. 

Ferreira said, “CRESS is supposed to be an independent alternative to policing and you are not allowing that to happen.  We’re not seeing the public safety part of it — just social service.  So I want to see the data that shows why it’s too risky to include the public safety component.” She added, “That you are saying that this interim leadership team is going to bring onboard the new director [of CRESS] does not give me confidence that the original mission is going to be fulfilled.”

Henry asked if there had been any changes in CRESS hours.

Young responded that she expects that hours will be expanded when CRESS is fully staffed, though it is not yet clear in what way. She said that the town expects to hire three new responders by the end of December, that they had received 12 applications for three open positions and had selected six finalists.  She said that she has been speaking with the Jones Library about the possibility of CRESS being stationed there in the evenings, and is also looking into having teams on call.  These matters will be taken up by the new director.

Henry wanted to know what is being done about finding a permanent home for CRESS.

Young said that she is working on it, and that  space in town is at a premium.  It needs to be in a location where access is not restricted. CRESS is currently located in the Bangs Community Center, which closes at 4 p.m. Henry wondered why that open hours at Bangs couldn not be extended.

Ferreira expressed concern about using the Jones library as a space for CRESS because the Jones has been frequently reported as an unsafe space for BIPOC and marginalized people.  She added that the town should not regard eight responders as full staffing and wanted to know what the town will do to get CRESS up to full staffing levels of 12 responders.

Henry again raised the issue of the original mission of CRESS. He said “The Power Point suggests that CRESS has been doing some things but none of them are consistent with the original mandate.  You must appreciate our frustration that there is no alternative public safety in this.  There is nothing in here that identifies CRESS to the community as an alternative to the police.  I understand the difficulty of the situation you have fallen into – but I think you can do more. “

Young responded, “I feel the brunt of CRESS not meeting the needs of the community for the last year.  But I have only been at it for four months.  I am doing everything that I can possibly do to get CRESS where it needs to be and to move it toward the mission that was identified for it. The DEI department has suffered from my absence. We are not unaware of the desires of the community.”

Ferreira worried about whether the new CRESS director will have independence.  She said that plans to have public safety officials onboard the new director just intensifies these concerns. She said that resistance to the original vision of CRESS is apparent. One of the original recommendations was to reduce the size of the Amherst police force as alternative responders took on calls to non-violent events. “I can see why there is resistance and why the public safety establishment wants a slow start.  But the community wants big steps.”

Henry asked Young to provide a breakdown of certain types of police calls over the last two years (trespass, noise, violation of town ordinances like open container) and note how many of those calls resulted in arrest. Young said she does not have those data, and promised to  request them from the police.

DEI Update
Jennifer Moyston reported on cultural events sponsored by the DEI office and the Human Rights Commission.  

The town’s annual celebration of Human Rights Day was held on December 10 at the Bangs Community Center.  Upcoming events include the community celebration of Kwanzaa on Sunday, December 31, The town’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration, the National Day of Racial Healing, and two additional events, all before the end of February. Details are forthcoming on the town website.

The DEI youth survey, which aims to provide background information to help in the development of a BIPOC youth empowerment center in Amherst, was revised to include demographic information requested by the CSSJC. AmeriCorps volunteer Asa Stanley- Hemler, who is helping to develop and implement the survey, reported that it will be distributed to middle school and high school clubs through staff liaisons, with the assistance of AmeriCorps volunteers at the high school.

Young reported that her office is finalizing DEI training for all town departments and that a second round of training will begin soon.

A series of public listening sessions on the proposed Police Resident Oversight Board will begin on Sunday, December 17 and will be coordinated by consultant Deb Kolodny, who lives in Amherst.

Ferreira pointed out that there is no place to take a civil rights complaint in Amherst where one can expect to see it effectively adjudicated.  She lamented how long it is taking to get the ROB off the ground, given how much of the background work was done by CSWG and their consultants. She said “ It’s three years later we’re still at square one.  Maybe Paul Bockelman could meet with us so we can agree on how to get things moving.  But Paul has not been willing.  This is not acceptable.”

Henry, the CSSJC representative to the police search committee, reported that the police chief search committee met last week and feels that they do not have a sufficiently sized pool of candidates to proceed, so they are looking into bringing in a direct recruiter/headhunter to help expand the pool.  All seemed to agree that more candidates are needed.  Henry said that they are asking the search firm to expand the search beyond traditional/conventional outlets for such just job postings. 

Allegra Clark, the CSSJC representative to the CRESS director search committee, reported that they have met twice and reviewed their process and candidate resumes. They have received 19 applications and have invited about half of those applicants for first interviews, with the hope of completing that first round of interviews before the end of year,and moving on to the second round during the first week in January.

Ferreira wanted to know if CSSJC and the responders will have the opportunity to meet the finalists. She wondered who will be contributing input to the final decision.

Clark responded that finalists will be interviewed by the Town Manager and will then have the opportunity to meet with responders.   The search committee will recommend the finalists and the Town Manager will make the final choice.

The Black Business Association of Amherst Area will sponsor a community Kwanzaa celebration on December 31. 

The Multi-lingual Parent Advisory Council has asked CSSJC to present to them next week regarding the status of CRESS. 

Member Reports
Ferreira reported that she had an initial conversation with representatives from Pelham’s public safety committee, and that they are looking at the possibility of creating their own community responder service or partnering with Amherst to jointly operate one.  They had previously had conversations about the possibilities with prior CRESS director Earl Miller.

Clark and Ferreira will make a presentation on the work of the CSWG, their recommendations to the town, and the status of CRESS to the Judy Brooks Conversation Series, on January 18, 2024. (see the League of Women Voters web site or the Indy’s events calendar for more information).

Clark reported that she spoke with representatives of the Amherst Survival Center and Craig’s Doors to get their input on CRESS  since those organizations were unable to attend the recent public forum. They raised concerns about keeping CRESS an independent and separate entity from other public safety departments and also raised concerns about response time. 

Ferreira and Clark met with Deb Kolodny, who will be running the town forums on the ROB.

Henry reported that the  ZBA, of which he is a member, will be hearing from the developer for the affordable housing development in North Amherst at their next meeting.

The next meeting of the CSSJC will be on January 10.

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