Town-gown cooperation pays off

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Massachusetts and the Town of Amherst seem to have found a winning solution to neighborhood tensions among students living off campus and permanent residents: community policing. Put simply, officers are establishing relationships with the public, promoting civil behavior all around.

Officials from the university and the town report that since this approach kicked into a higher gear five years ago, police responses and arrests related to noise complaints and other student disturbances have sharply declined. Noise issues dropped 36 percent from 748 in 2012 to 480 during the recently completed school year, while the number of arrests resulting from party-related incidents plunged from 1,353 to 660.

Between last September and May, 333 student hosts registered their parties as part of a voluntary program. Police had to give just 34 of them a phone call after complaints from neighbors and only one warning and one citation were issued.

All of this is very good news and the town is pleased, even though it also has meant a sharp decrease in money collected in fines resulting from these disturbances. “It’s a trade-off we’re willing to make,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman says. It is better to resolve a noise complaint with a phone call rather than a response by a cruiser.

There is a long history of student partying spilling into off-campus neighborhoods, resulting in a long-simmering anger among townspeople. There were decades of failed attempts to solve the problem, and prospects were looking bleak when the troubles came to a head in 2014 during the so-called “Blarney Blowout.” That year there was a confrontation between masses of drunken pre-St. Patrick’s Day revelers and police who donned protective gear and used tear gas to quell what became a riot. There were 55 arrests, injuries and vandalism that resulted in community angst with blame aimed in all directions.

That prompted UMass to hire former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to study the problem and advise local officials.

On the list of recommendations by Davis were suggestions that the Amherst and UMass police departments focus on community policing and that the university hire a civilian neighborhood liaison who, among other duties, would be visible in the community during party hours. That aligned with Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone’s plan to institute sector-based, community policing.

The two men who have been on the front lines of these efforts are Officer William Laramee, who was named the Amherst Police Department’s neighborhood liaison officer, and Eric Beal, the university’s employee who has a similar role. The two men visit the neighborhoods surrounding UMass and chat with residents to encourage civil behavior, ward off landlord-tenant disputes and help resolve squabbles. They patrol separately on weekend nights to keep an eye on the partying and intervene if necessary.

Laramee, who has been on the police force for over 20 years, had been head of the bicycle patrol unit before this assignment and already had made connections in campus neighborhoods. Beal, a lawyer, is a UMass alum who majored in sociology, and once served as a resident assist in the Southwest Residential Area. He also has worked as a mental health counselor, so he, too, was equipped with strong skills for the job.

The voluntary party registration — known as Party Smart — was established for the 2016-17 school year. If police receive a complaint about a registered party and the hosts quiet or disperse it within 20 minutes of an officer’s call, police do not take further action. The program also has an education component through the Off-Campus Student Services office which includes peer advising about being a responsible host.

UMass and town officials deserve credit for these successful efforts to improve students’ behavior. We hope they continue to focus on these and any other steps needed to make Amherst a stronger, more neighborly college community.