Amherst begins conversation on policing

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

  • Amherst Police Station FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2020 12:08:16 PM

AMHERST — Police patrols in Amherst are much more frequent at its apartment complexes and in lower-income neighborhoods than in more affluent areas of town, based on observations one resident has made.

“Amherst is policed differently depending on where you live,” Lydia Irons, a Jeffrey Lane resident, told the Town Council Monday.

In endorsing possible changes to how the department operates, Irons also presented statistics showing that nearly 94% of all police calls don’t pose any risk to officers or require an armed response.

Nathan Diplock of North Amherst asked the Town Council to support both disarming police officers and defunding the police department. 

“Overall we need to rethink the role of police in our society,” Diplock said.

Irons and Diplock were among several residents who offered their views to the Town Council during a special meeting on law enforcement and public safety as Amherst officials respond to appeals both locally and across the country for changing police practices and cutting police budgets following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis this spring, and the deaths of other unarmed Black individuals at the hands of police in other parts of the country. 

Town Council President Lynn Griesemer told the nearly 60 people who attended the conference call that the council is pledging transparency and that the meeting was only the beginning of a conversation that could lead to developing a citizens oversight panel and more involvement in how decisions on police operations are made.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the idea is to confront systemic racism and disparate outcomes. He praised the department leadership for a willingness to change and adjust to the needs of residents.

In fact, Police Chief Scott Livingstone said he would welcome participation by residents who can offer suggestions on how police can better serve the community.

During the session, Livingstone and Capts. Gabe Ting and Ron Young gave an overview of how the department, which currently has 44 officers, eight of whom identify as members of minority groups, works. They discussed the department’s training and recruitment practices, equipment used and outreach.

Livingstone, who has been a member of the force since 1977 and its chief for the past 11 years, told the council that he couldn’t recall any time an officer has discharged a firearm over the past 40 years.

Young said there is a commitment to professionalism and that Amherst is seen as the “gold standard” among law enforcement agencies in the region.

All use of force incidents must be reported to the chief, and any use of force with a firearm is referred to an independent investigation by the Northwestern district attorney’s office. 

Use of force reports are tallied every January and of 18,000 response calls per year, often make up fewer than 10, according to Young. 

“It’s in the single digits more often than not,” Young said.

Any citizen complaints against officers by residents can be filed in person, online, with the Human Rights Commission or through the town manager’s office. 

“Everything’s investigated, even if it’s an anonymous complaint,” Livingstone said.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said President Obama-era guidelines for 21st century policing offer opportunities for citizen oversight and collaboration, in particular on collecting data and offering more input on operations.

But the Police Stops Committee, established by Town Meeting in 2004 and running until 2008 to collect data about racial profiling, was the last significant effort to make sure that police are not targeting minorities and people of color.

Still, DeAngelis said such targeting may still be happening, often in less visible ways, pointing to a recent incident which someone called police to deal with several Black youths playing in a yard.

Livingstone said he is having conversations with emergency dispatchers about how to better screen these types of calls where the person calling may have racial animus.

“It’s an area we’re looking at, and possibly policy changes as well,” Livingstone said. 

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said she would like to see ways to better screen officers for implicit bias and training to overcome racial bias, while District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam told officers she was unhappy to learn about the riot gear police have and the potential ramifications of using it in responding to calls.

Irv Rhodes of Pondview Drive said he was impressed to learn that department has implicit bias training, but wants to make sure it is being done on a regular basis.

Amherst resident Mattea Kramer told the Town Council that it is important to bring people of color into conversations about changes to the police department.

Prior to the meeting, the council also received letters from residents, some of whom advocate for dissolving the department.

Sade Bonilla, a mother of a 3-year-old and an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Massachusetts, requested the council abolish police and put the money saved toward community services. 

“As a taxpayer, I see brand new police cruisers (gas guzzling SUV models no less) while local public schools are literally crumbling to the ground,” Bonilla wrote in a letter to the council. “I have witnessed Amherst police approach people without housing on our city streets to ask them to move along.

“As the citizens who elected you, we are counting on you to listen to us and follow through,” wrote Christene DeJong in another letter. “Abolition is a process and I am astutely aware that we cannot close the police department tomorrow, or even close it at all without building up a robust array of other community organizations that address the social and economic needs of our citizens.”

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

 


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