Alternate police services pitched
Working group proposes $2.2M unarmed community response department to handle many calls
By SCOTT MERZBACH
AMHERST — An unarmed and civilian program whose workers would respond to many calls for service in place of town police officers is being proposed by the Community Safety Working Group. The group is also proposing a robust Civilian Oversight Board to monitor police.
At its meeting this week, the working group, created by the Town Council to address racial inequities in policing, finalized the idea of creating a Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service, or CRESS program, at a cost of $2.2 million. The seven-member panel approved the recommendations unanimously.
Their proposal is going to Town Manager Paul Bockelman as he prepares the fiscal year 2022 municipal budget that will be delivered to the Town Council for its May 3 meeting.
Under a fully staffed plan, CRESS teams would respond to all nonviolent and noncriminal situations instead of police officers. Those could include responses to mental health issues, homelessness and substance abuse matters, as well as wellness checks and problems involving youth and schools.
Working Group Chairman Paul Wiley said the proposal would
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mean a positive responder response that gives service, support, security and safety to members of the BIPOC community (Black, Indigenous and persons of color).
“We have an opportunity to possibly redirect funding from the Police Department to alternative models of public safety,” Wiley said, adding that he is uncertain whether police are ready to offer support for this.
Vice Chairwoman Brianna Owen explained that CRESS staff would be housed in a separate place and have separate cars, and operate independently of the police, though they might need backup in certain cases, such as responding to a noise complaint in which partygoers become violent.
The proposal is similar to the Department of Community Care that the Policing Review Committee in Northampton is recommending to Mayor David Narkewicz.
A final report from the working group, meeting weekly since early December to identify alternative approaches to policing and ensuring that racial equity is a focus for officers, is due to Bockelman by May 15.
Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he would wait to see the final report before offering comment.
Under the most comprehensive proposal, the CRESS program would have 18 employees, including a director, three supervisors, six responders and an administrative assistant, along with three shift supervisor dispatchers and six dispatchers. The town would be asked to recruit multiracial teams of responders with appropriate expertise, such as in clinical mental health, social work and de-escalation, and prioritize hiring bilingual individuals.
Working group member Pat Ononibaku said there are many nonviolent calls that can be responded to. “We felt the police budget needed to be cut in order to fund the program,” Ononibaku said.
Ellisha Walker, also on the panel, said she expects a large number of police calls — with the department making 17,483 responses in fiscal year 2019 — could be handled by CRESS teams, from motor vehicle violations to community outreach.
“These people will be trained and will be able to deal with these things without weapons,” Walker said. “That is the point of police not being there.”
In the current year, the police budget is $5.15 million for a 48-member force, with the emergency dispatch center, directing calls to police, fire and EMS, funded at $728,149. Two vacant police positions have remained unfilled as the working group continues its work.
Before the group’s discussion, Livingstone, who told the working group he and officers had been hopeful for a guilty verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, said that since he joined the force in 1978, the department has adapted as different requests are made of the agency. Mental health calls are burdensome, he said, because they require training and development of officers who make up the Crisis Intervention Team. “We’ve done our best to adapt and training our officers to respond to those calls,” Livingstone said. The working group is also recommending various initiatives that could cost as much as $1.17 million and are designed “to create a safer and more inclusive community.”
Those include an Amherst youth empowerment center, transitional housing for homeless people, rental assistance, an Amherst cultural/multicultural center, and an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, each with qualified BIPOC leaders.
Finally, the working group is recommending that funds be included in the next fiscal year budget to support training, outreach, research, and hiring of investigators for a new Civilian Oversight Board that would monitor police activity.