Backers of police alternative in Amherst push for full funding

  • Amherst Police Department GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/9/2021 3:34:41 PM

AMHERST — A committee advising that Amherst launch an agency that would provide an alternative to police responses to handle nonviolent situations and incidents without serious crime is making a push for full funding of its recommendations.

A letter to the community issued Tuesday by Community Safety Working Group Co-Chairwomen Brianna Owen and Ellisha Walker asks that a proposed Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service, or CRESS program, should be funded in its entirety in the fiscal year 2022 budget, meaning that $1.17 million would be used to hire 15 responders, a program director and support staff.

Additionally, the working group is seeking nine CRESS dispatchers at an estimated cost of $619,491.

“It is disappointing that the town manager only allocated $475,000 for the entire CRESS Department,” Owen and Walker wrote. “This is setting the CRESS program up for failure.”

They want residents to make an appeal to members of the Town Council, who are expected to vote on the fiscal year 2022 budget at their June 21 meeting. The council had an extended discussion at their regular meeting Monday about the CRESS program, with councilors considering a study to see whether the number of responders can go from four to eight using grant funding.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman addressed the topic in a memo, pointing out that the original $130,000 in the budget has been increased through other sources and $40,000 was moved from the public safety account to community services so that CRESS can have a full-time director, four full-time community responders, and one full-time administrative support position.

“Town staff will continue to seek alternative sources of funding to assist in the development and establishment of this new program with the expectation of reporting back to the Town Council on the progress at regular intervals,” Bockelman wrote. “If additional town appropriations are necessary, I will return to the Town Council with a clear budget and request for funding.”

This staffing may change as data is collected, alternative funding sources are found, and program development is completed, Bockelman wrote.

At the meeting, District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz said CRESS came about because there is a demand in the community for an alternative to traditional policing.

“I really want to say again that this came about because people don’t want conventional policing. There is an issue with the culture of policing,” Swartz said.

Owen and Walker note another recommendation is for a five-member Resident Oversight Board to provide oversight of the Amherst Police Department and for the CRESS program. A stipend of $10,000 is recommended to attract and recruit residents for the panel, specifically Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC.

The proposed town budget does now include $160,000 for a recommended department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

No money, though, is set aside for a Youth Empowerment Center to have a budget of $218,000 for four staff, providing a range of activities such as theater, arts, fitness classes, job readiness and academic support; or for a BIPOC Cultural Center, recommended for a $167,054 budget for three staff, providing support, promotion and celebration of BIPOC cultures, holidays and festivals.

The working group also recommended that no additional hires be made in the coming year at the Amherst Police Department, keeping the number at 44 or reducing it further if there are departures.

“This is not the time to be increasing the size of our police force,” Owen and Walker wrote. “The CSWG made its recommendation to reduce the over-policing of BIPOC communities that was consistently identified by Amherst community members.”

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said police remain essential to responding to domestic disturbances and other incidents.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said it would be hard to vote for a budget that fills vacant police department positions. “That I have a lot of difficulty with,” DuMont said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com


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