Amherst council discussion over police video cut off as tensions remain high

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2022 8:25:49 PM

AMHERST — In the midst of determining how to resolve lingering community concerns over a 54-second video showing police interacting with Amherst youths in July, Monday’s Town Council meeting was adjourned suddenly by councilors who expressed anger, shame and embarrassment at having the discussion cut off.

After At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke used a privilege accorded by the town charter to end all debate on the topic — thereby delaying a decision on a motion made by District 1 Councilor Michele Miller — councilors voted 7-5 to end the meeting before completing all business on the agenda.

Miller proposed what she called a pathway forward for the town to respond to the issues raised by the video, even after Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Pamela Nolan Young told the council in August that she found no abuse of authority by officers in the incident. The incident came as a response to an early morning noise complaint in which one officer can be heard telling the youths, most of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, that they have no rights.

Miller made a motion to refer the matter to the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee — which acts as an adviser to the council on matters of racial equity and has continued to contend the video shows wrongdoing by police — as well as the Human Rights Commission and the African Heritage Reparation Assembly.

Those panels would then work with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department, other staff and the town attorney to make “repair and reconciliation” recommendations by Nov. 21 that could then be enacted by the Town Council.

Hanneke’s subsequent motion, though, stopped all discussion about Miller’s idea in its tracks, and essentially put an end to the joint meeting with the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee.

“I feel ashamed right now, very deeply ashamed and embarrassed to be representing a council that would do something like that to community members, when we fought so hard to get them this one hour they deserved,” At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said.

“I’m very angry. I think it was a mistake,” said District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis of the postponement. “I feel like we truncated something, and I think it’s very important.”

Speaking as discussion was occurring on whether to support the track and field improvements at the high school and whether artificial turf should be used for its playing surface, DeAngelis had that decision postponed as well.

“I don’t think the damned artificial turf is as important as what we were talking about,” she said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam also was upset.

“When you shut things down when somebody has been just stating the issues so well for another time you change the momentum,” Pam said. “I will say as a feminist that’s what men have been doing to women for so long. I felt it all through my being. I just can’t stand being shut down like that.”

Hanneke used Section 2.10c of the charter, invoking the right to postpone a non-emergency order. That section states, “On the first occasion that the question on adoption of a non-emergency measure is put to the Town Council, if a single member present objects to the taking of the vote, the vote shall be postponed until the next meeting of the Town Council.” It also means any debate must cease immediately.

Hanneke offered no explanation for her action until Tuesday’s joint Finance Committee and Town Council meeting. “I needed time that I didn’t have had the vote proceeded,” Hanneke said. She also asked for kindness, compassion and respect, both from her colleagues and the community, arguing that she didn’t have a safe or tolerant space.

Councilors at the Tuesday session voted 11-0 to resume discussions on Miller’s motion at a meeting Nov. 1.

A majority of the 12 councilors present at Monday’s meeting adjourned a short time after Hanneke’s move to delay.

Miller made the motion, and was joined in support for adjournment by DeAngelis, Pam, Walker, District 4 Councilors Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney, and District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub. Opposed to ending the meeting were Hanneke, District 5 Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne and Ana Devlin Gauthier, Council President Lynn Griesemer and At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg. District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen was absent.

The Town Council had been holding an hourlong joint meeting with the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, and Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Young, to resolve the concerns that have developed over the video.

Community Safety and Social Justice Committee member Pat Ononibaku criticized what happened, adding that it shows what BIPOC individuals go through.

“This is what white supremacy looks like,” Ononibaku said. “What an insult to the BIPOC community in this town.”

Tensions were high throughout the meeting, with most of those attending participating in a virtual format, and others at Town Room at Town Hall.

Ononibaku said she has heard no compassion for the youth’s experience with police, and used the platform to suggest Livingstone depart from his leadership role.

“I wonder why tax dollars should pay for your salary in this town,” Ononibaku said. “I think you need to think about stepping down because you are not representing ...”

Before Ononibaku could continue, Griesemer cut her off.

“I think it’s inappropriate for anyone to sit here and ask for a police chief’s resignation in this meeting,” Griesemer said.

Livingstone, who had presented the department’s report on the July 5 incident, responded to numerous questions from councilors and other committee members throughout the evening,

In one of his final comments, he brushed aside the possibility that he would leave his position.

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Livingstone said.

Even after the Town Council adjourned, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee continued its meeting, receiving support from some members of the public, and councilors who apologized for what happened, and hoped its members could return for follow-up discussion before a decision is made on how to proceed.

Committee member Demetria Shabazz said that inaction and delay will only cause more harm.

“This is not going to bear good fruit for our community, and it won’t be because of us,” Shabazz said.

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