Amherst picks leader for new CRESS department

  • EARL MILLER

Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2022 8:29:43 PM
Modified: 3/8/2022 8:29:10 PM

AMHERST — A new town department that will provide an alternative to police, with unarmed employees responding to calls that don’t feature violence of serious crime, has its inaugural leader.

Earl Miller, regional director of recovery for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health since December 2017, received unanimous confirmation from the Town Council Monday to take on the role of director of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service department, beginning March 21.

“We’re really excited to welcome Earl Miller,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman told councilors.

Miller, 35, of Westfield, is a Holyoke native who emerged from what Bockelman described as a strong pool of candidates.

Miller said in a statement that he is proud to begin the work and learn from the community.

“CRESS, for me, represents the hopefulness of our world in a time where that can sometimes escape us,” Miller said. “I am committed to approaching this work from a genuine place, to honor the dignity inherent in people, and to do hard work with a joyful heart.” 

Bockelman said Miller brings the job skills from his professional life, such as previously being coordinator of peer roles for the Center for Human Development and leading trainings in topics such as culturally appropriate services and hiring, trauma and resilience and LGBT supports, as well as his lived experience, having once been homeless and founding and developing programs to get permanent, affordable housing for homeless.

“He brings a real fine interpretation of what’s going on and how to listen and be heard,” Bockelman said.

“He knows first-hand what it takes to help and be helped,” Bockelman said. “Every person who has met Mr. Miller has walked away impressed by his passion, insight and understanding of the challenges we face.” 

The department will handle all situations involving mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespass, truancy, wellness checks, youth and schools.

With a $936,000 full-year operating cost, CRESS is initially being funded through $250,000 from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, a $90,000 earmark from the state, a $450,000 state grant and $130,000 in the town budget.

CRESS is similar to Northampton’s Department of Community Care. In November, the city hired Sean Donovan as its implementation director, with a starting salary for the full-time, temporary position at $86,486.

The Amherst position was advertised with a salary between $74,895 and $100,652, depending on qualifications and experience. Bockelman said the exact salary is to be determined.

The department will operate from the upper level of the Bangs Community Center, which is in the midst of being converted from the offices of nonprofit agencies for that purpose. As director, Miller will help to create job descriptions for the new employees, including eight staff members.

Following two months of training that will include de-escalation and mediation, first aid and CPR, and equity awareness and social justice considerations, the multiracial teams of two will hit the streets and be available around the clock seven days a week, except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 9 a.m.

Emergency dispatchers housed at the police station, who currently send police officers and firefighter/ paramedics to calls, will be responsible for determining which calls they go to.

At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, who previously served on the Community Safety Working Group that recommended the CRESS program, appreciates that it is becoming a reality.

“I am very much looking forward to the process,” Walker said. “I am very hopeful for the program.”

A screening committee for the CRESS director position was chaired by Human Resources Director Donna-Rae Kenneally and included Jennifer Moyston, the assistant director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, Police Capt. Gabriel Ting, and Dwayne Chmable, the out-of-time school coordinator for the Amherst Public Schools.

Of the more than 20 applications, 13 people were interviewed and three finalists returned for more in-depth interviews with Bockelman and Moyston, before Miller was selected.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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