Amherst finance board urges Town Council to reject cutting police budget

  • Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2020 1:23:30 PM

AMHERST — A push by some Amherst residents to have the Town Council cut more than half of the proposed $5.15 million in spending for the Police Department is not being supported by the Finance Committee.

The committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend the Town Council adopt the budget recommended by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, noting that any significant cut would require more help from state police, which would be slower to respond to Amherst, and that quality-of-life issues, particularly related to the behavior of college students, might be left unaddressed.

“With that reduction in the police budget and response capability, there will not be enough officers to respond to noise complaint and nuisance house violations,” the committee wrote in a draft memo to the Town Council.

The committee also noted that the 44 police officers are vital to reducing crime in town and are one of the first lines of defense against the spread of COVID-19: “Valuable programs, such as community outreach, would be discontinued,” the memo said. “That program reduced arrests by more than 500 in (a) year. As the pandemic remains a threat, officers will not be available to respond to complaints of unsafe gatherings.”

The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the town’s $68.03 million fiscal year 2021 spending plan at its meeting Monday.

But the committee did make the approval of the police budget contingent on having two positions that are anticipated to be vacant not be filled until Bockelman, in consultation with the Town Council, and town residents, “has fully explored alternative options of providing services and presented the results to the Town Council no later than Jan. 31, 2021.”

Bockelman told the Finance Committee at the first of three discussions this week that he understands the sentiment for a budget reduction arises out of concern and anger about actions by police officers elsewhere in the United States, and he is ready to engage in a conversation about how the town does policing and examine systemic changes needed throughout town government.

But Bockelman said he remains committed to having the Police Department fully funded to meet the needs of the community, which it wouldn’t be able to do with a significant reduction.

“I think cutting the budget of the public health or public safety departments at this moment in time, in the middle of a pandemic, would just be a big mistake,” Bockelman said.

Two new community groups, the Amherst Racial Equity Task Force and Defund 413 Amherst, have advocated for a 52%, or $2.7 million cut, in the department’s spending.

The Finance Committee is charged with examining the budget and developing a recommendation. Only the Police Department budget received scrutiny through public comments.

But at this week’s meetings, the department’s operations received support from other officials, including Health Director Julie Federman. She said officers have been integral to working with homeless people who live in town.

“I’ve just been so impressed in the ways we’ve been able to work together,” Federman said.

Federman said her department relies on the police for keeping people safe and healthy, such as responding to people battling addiction, and officers being trained to administer Narcan. Police have also developed a team that can check on a person’s well-being.

“Public health and public safety are crucial during this pandemic,” Federman said.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said he sees the Amherst officers as responsive to the community. “It’s a good police agency. They do it right,” Nelson said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she can’t dismiss the idea that some residents believe they are being targeted by law enforcement. “So much of this has to do with the feeling of being policed,” Pam said.

Pam wondered if there is a way to restructure follow-up police calls so they are not being made with a police officer but instead by public health professionals.

Police Capt. Gabe Ting explained that the department uses sector-based, problem-oriented community policing.

“We stress proactivity, which kind of initiates officer-initiated effort,” Ting said. “We stress that to prevent problems before they happen.”

But he said sometimes police have to be present for longer periods of time, such as during recent incidents at Colonial Village where an international graduate student had the windows to her apartment shot out by a BB gun. Police needed to be on site, Ting said, to identify the culprits and make sure everyone living there could feel safe.

Ting also explained the work already done alongside other town departments and regional agencies, with the fire department being the most common partner due to officers being dispatched to medical and fire calls.

“We are often the first to arrive on scene to assess the situation, report the findings and request resources,” Ting said.

Capt. Ron Young said the department also works alongside organizations such as Hampshire HOPE, promoting a harm reduction model to help individuals get the services they need, including going to the hospital, getting a recovery coach or accessing another service that promotes their well-being.

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

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