Report on the Meeting of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), February 7, 2024
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Allegra Clark and Debora Ferreira (Co-chairs), Everald Henry, and Lissette Paredes
Staff: Pamela Nolan Young (DEI Director)
DEI Director’s Report: Youth Services and Residents Oversight Board
DEI Director Pamela Nolan Young reported that response to the Youth Empowerment Survey was underwhelming. The DEI Department is planning to enlist staff at the high school and middle school to get more input from students. She said the town has discontinued its relationship with AmeriCorps, so AmeriCorps volunteer Asa Stanley-Hemler is no longer working with DEI and CRESS.
Seventy-two responses to the survey about the Residents’ Oversight Board (ROB) were received in addition to the four public forums held over the past two months. Young said the consultant is preparing a report on the public input, which will be finished some time in March. After the report is received, a request for proposals (RFP) will be posted to find a consultant to guide the implementation of the ROB.
Debora Ferreira expressed frustration at the lack of progress for the Youth Empowerment Center and the ROB. She said, “We’re still at the stage of again listening and gathering information that was already there. When is the actual board going to be established?”
Young replied that the first efforts to get a consultant last year failed. When the new consultant was hired, more outreach to the community was done to have up-to-date conversations. She said, “I think we’re still in good shape to have a residents’ oversight board established by the end of the fiscal year. The RFP is already drafted, but it is waiting for the report.”
Ferreira replied that the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) had hired consultants to collect these data in 2021, and established the fact that there should be an ROB, so basically this whole first phase was “a huge waste of time.”
Young continued with her report, saying that the three visioning sessions with Dr. Barbara Love in the fall attended by staff and community members. People who attended have served as facilitators for other DEI activities. The National Day of Racial Healing (rescheduled from January to Feb. 29 due to a snowstorm) at Crocker Farm School will be the kickoff of what she hopes will be bi-monthly sessions in furthering the conversation process between members of the community. Love will continue to advise her and Assistant DEI Director Jennifer Moyston on the process to promote racial healing and racial reconciliation.
Three New CRESS Responders Started in January
The interim leadership team of Young, Fire Chief Tim Nelson, CRESS Program Assistant Kat Newman, and Police Sergeant Janet Griffin updated the CSSJC on the status of the CRESS (Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service). Nelson reported that three new responders were hired on January 16, and are now four weeks into their seven-week training.
Ferreira said she hopes that after the new CRESS director is hired, an assistant director will be named so there will be someone to take over if anything were to happen to the director. Young said that the interim leadership is compiling a report of what has transpired with CRESS over the past six months, and will include a list of recommendations to the new director. She hopes that the report will recommend that the department organizational structure be changed to include and assistant director, but that will ultimately be a decision of the Town Manager. Previously, there was a Grants Administration Manager who was part of the collective bargaining unit, but an assistant director would be nonunion position. Ferreira was concerned that the creation of the Assistant Director position would mean the loss of a responder. The CSWG recommended that there be 12 responders in addition to the Director and Assistant Director, but the town only budgeted for eight responders.
Young would not commit to the leadership group recommending the appointment of an assistant director, although she personally supports it. She did feel that CRESS should have a clinical social worker, as recommended in its grant from the Department of Public Health. She explained, “That aspect has been fulfilled by a contract with the Wildflower Alliance, but having someone in house gives the department a little bit more flexibility about the types of services that it provides in the community”
Training for the new responders includes mental health for first aid responders, presentations from the autism and law enforcement coalition, and a variety of online trainings such as about opioid use. Also, Amherst Neighbors gave a presentation on dealing with the elderly population, and the Family Bridge Resource Center also provided training. The responders will also meet with Craig’s Doors, and they visited the Amherst Survival Center. The group has been holding restorative justice circles, particularly around work ethics, professionalism, trust, and integrity. They have also received racism 101 training and training on micro-aggressions.
CSSJC member Everald Henry asked if any part of the training included an opportunity to ride along with a police officer to observe. Young answered that that was not done with the first group of responders due to collective bargaining agreements, but the leadership group has reached out to Amherst College about possibly accompanying their officers in ride alongs.
Gilbert said that CRESS began receiving calls from dispatch in mid-December, and as of now have had 70 dispatch calls. These include administrative calls, citizen assists, assists to businesses, wellbeing checks, mental health calls, and follow-up calls. Recently, presence walks were added to the type of calls. These involve responders going out into the community and interacting with people as needed. The responders document these interactions and engagements by calling them in to Dispatch, so that a log of the work is kept. The leadership team did not offer an estimate of when CRESS would be able to respond to other types of calls. Ferreira thought it was important for CRESS to respond to noise complaints, because a lot of times it is the police that escalate tensions when they respond. Nelson continued to advocate for a slow approach to adding types of calls, to first of all make sure the responders are safe. Ferreira said she “is speaking for the community here. I hear from the community that they want these things yesterday. They’re the ones that are suffering on the other end of this conversation.”
Henry and Lissette Paredes asked to see the dispatch logs. Paredes wanted to know if the police had to intervene on any of those calls after CRESS did the initial response. Griffin did not know that information, but will try to get it for the next CSSJC meeting. Clark asked how it is determined when the clinical social worker from the police department should respond to the call instead of CRESS. This question was not answered.
As to the expansion of CRESS’s hours, Young said that decision will be left up to the new director who will have the ability to work with the Harvard fellow from the Kennedy school assigned to the program to determine what will be best for the director and the department long-term.
Public Expresses Frustration at the Slow Pace of CRESS Roll-Out
In public comment, Pat Ononibaku said, “What I have heard tonight is not only frustrating, depressing and discouraging, it is all about racist practices and policies by the Amherst government who refuse to fully fund CRESS. And you guys meet month after month discussing CRESS.” She continued, “The police machine is pushing back on having the existence of CRESS.”
Rani Parker said, “I know that a snail’s pace is what’s planned with care, but I honestly believe that it has really been too slow a pace.” She spoke to moving the time that CRESS works from only during the daytime to closer to 24 hours.
Ellisha Walker said she hopes that the leadership team will keep the concerns raised at this meeting in mind as they’re finishing up their report. “And one of the things is just keeping in mind the original goal and purpose of the CRESS department, remembering the emphasis on assuring BIPOC residents are feeling safe in this town and are not falling through the cracks,” she said. “We need to think about what solutions we can put in place so that we do feel comfortable sending these responders to these calls that we actually need them to be responding to, instead of just continuing to say that it’s not safe at this time.”
CRESS Director Search
Clark said that the seven members of the CRESS Director search committee met with Human Resources and the Town Manager in December, and then met without the Town Manager to discuss the applicant pool. There were at least 19 applicants, and eight were included in the first-round interviews. Of those, four finalists were recommended to the Town Manager. Clark thought that a smaller group would meet with the four finalists, and then there would be meet and greet opportunities for the candidates with the CRESS Responders. According to Clark, there was diversity in the four candidates, and there were both male and female candidates.
In the February 6 issue of the Amherst Current, David Porter reported that the four finalists met with the interim leadership team of CRESS last week, and the team expects to submit a recommendation for a candidate to the Town Council by the end of the month. The Council then has 14 days to vote on the nomination.
Henry asked if the finalists would be comfortable pushing back against the town if needed to defend CRESS’s original mission. Clark said some seemed like they would be stronger than others in that regard.
Police Chief Search
Henry said the police chief search committee has narrowed the applicants from 11 to 5, and will be inviting those five to a first-round of interviews over Zoom. The committee is now formulating the interview questions. He said, “I think we have very qualified candidates.” He said there is diversity among the candidates, but there are no female applicants. However, the search is still open, but no one else has applied since December.
Henry said the plan is to narrow the field with the first round of interviews, and schedule a second interview for about three. The three finalists will then be invited to an in-person interview with the Town Manager, but the Town Manager has not been involved in the process up to now. He has left the search decisions up to the eight people on the committee. As far as Henry knows, no public forums have been scheduled for the community members to meet the finalists.