Amherst Town Council charts racial equity steps

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2023 7:37 PM

AMHERST — A volunteer from AmeriCorps who will lead youth programming on behalf of the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service departments; and hiring a consultant to help establish a Resident Oversight Board for the Police Department and review public safety protocols used by officers are among steps being taken to fulfill goals outlined by a community visioning process to improve police-community relations and further the town’s racial equity goals.

At a special meeting of the Town Council with the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and Human Rights Commission Wednesday evening that ran nearly five hours, responses were made orally and in writing to a March 17 draft report updating the Town Council on community visioning actions taken so far, a process that has been underway as the result of a Town Council vote on Nov. 14, 2022.

But there are concerns that town officials are not moving fast enough on getting the police oversight panel in place and a youth empowerment center up and running, despite more than year-old recommendations from the Community Safety Working Group.

In addition, the late night incident on July 5, 2022 in which police officers interacting with youths outside an apartment complex told them they had no rights remains a focus for those serving on the groups charged with promoting social and racial justice.

“I think the July 5th incident showed us that the youth in this town aren’t being kept safe by the institutions that we believe are to protect and serve them, mainly the Police Department,” said Allegra Clark, who chairs the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee. Clark said the feeling remains that the town has yet to properly address the harm caused to the youths who had been involved.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who issued the draft report, said work is underway.

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“We’re very proud of the work we’ve done so far,” Bockelman said, offering thanks to DEI Director Pamela Nolan Young and CRESS Director Earl Miller for their skill, knowledge and social intelligence in advancing town’s goal of equitable treatment of all residents. “We would not be where we are today if we didn’t have these two visionary leaders leading these departments.”

He acknowledged, though, that much is still to be done. “They’re at different stages of progress,” Bockelman said. “Some we’ve made good progress on, some not so good.”

The meeting started with Council President Lynn Griesemer explaining the origins of the work dating to May 25, 2020 with the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. That led to several actions taken by the Town Council and Bockelman. A resolution committed the town to ending structural racism and achieving racial equity for Black residents, and creating the Community Safety Working Group, which recommended the standing Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and the departments led by Young and Miller.

On a separate track, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly was formed and a reparations fund was created, while councilors responded to the July 5, 2022 incident following an investigation by the DEI director that found no wrongdoing by police. Bockelman did issue an apology for what he said were errors made during the incident at the council’s meeting on Nov. 14, after which the council issued a directive for town staff to develop a racial healing and reconciliation plan, along with a Resident Oversight Board for the Police Department.

Young said her office began focusing in January on social justice projects, including sponsoring the observance of a National Day of Racial Healing for both staff and residents, sponsoring a May 20 day of allyship. That work will continue with the aid of a consultant to be hired who will help with developing the Resident Oversight Board. An ad was published May 1, with responses due May 16. A review of public safety protocols will be embedded with this, though Young said it may be premature to work on in the midst of a search for a new police chief.

For the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, though, a lot of work is already being done on police oversight that doesn’t need to be replicated and reintroduced, and that protocols around consent searches, pretextual traffic stops and collection of racial data were already provided by another consultant.

“That was something that doesn’t needs to be reviewed — it needs to be implemented,” Clark said.

Committee member Debora Ferreira said Amherst’s families of color need trust and can’t wait for the oversight board to be in place.

“We need to start looking at these safety protocols and start to look at how we handle when incidents happen,” Ferreira said. “If there had been an apology early on, a lot of this would have been short-circuited, as opposed to going through this long, arduous, stressful, really hurtful process of these young people and their families.”

Pat Ononibaku, who is a spokeswoman for youth and families of color involved in the July 5 incident, whom she refers to as the Amherst 6, said they have been disregarded by town leadership.

“Let’s see who’s making decisions in this town: white, powerful people,” Ononibaku said. “When people speak up, you get retaliation, you get disparaged, you get silenced.”

Young said the AmeriCorps volunteer will put together workshops, activities and presentations on DEI topics, such as legal rights and responsibilities, in August, and that will foster the work of the youth empowerment center. Bockelman is also forming a working group around other initiatives related to the youth empowerment center.

At CRESS, Miller said his responders have had 570 engagements so far that have generated reports. Most calls were to assist citizens. A sampling of 27 calls is being reviewed by the Donahue Institute at UMass to evaluate the department’s operations and effectiveness. 

Among the work accomplished, Miller said, CRESS helped nine individuals, with aid from Craig’s Doors, to find shelter; worked at town events, including polls on election day; and met with families, including at Community Safety Day; as well as working to deescalate situations and do follow-up that includes support after a crisis.

One of the new department’s jobs has been to walk a senior citizen home every day, he said. “That may not feel like a big public safety thing, but not everybody has someone in their life to walk them home, and if you don’t, that’s a really big thing,” Miller said.

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