Amherst police alternative program expected to be ready by May

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2022 10:59:34 AM
Modified: 1/30/2022 10:58:06 AM

AMHERST — A community responders program, whose unarmed employees will handle some calls that don’t involve violence or serious crime that police officers currently respond to, should be running by May.

At recent community forums held by the implementation team, which includes Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson, members announced that a director for the Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service program will be hired before the end of February.

Then, with the director helping to create job descriptions for the new employees, eight staff members will be hired in March, followed by two months of training before multiracial teams of two hit the streets. One member will have expertise in clinical mental health and the other knowledge of de-escalation and mediation skills.

“We wish it were quicker, but we’re doing the best we can,” said Russ Vernon-Jones, who is part of the implementation team after serving on the Community Safety Working Group that recommended the program.

A director should be in place no later than March 1.

“It’s hard to know for sure, but we hope to have the director hired within a month,” Vernon-Jones said.

Once in place, the responders will be available around the clock seven days a week, with the lone exceptions to that coverage being Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 9 a.m. Those times were selected as periods when the program defers to police because the fewest emergency calls come during those time periods, said Jennifer Moyston, the staff liaison to the committee.

Moyston explained that staff training will include de-escalation and mediation, first aid and CPR, and equity awareness and social justice considerations.

During the forum, the implementation committee also announced that CRESS will be housed on the third floor of the Bangs Community Center in space where the offices of both Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County and the Center for New Americans had been until the leases for those organizations were not renewed at the end of 2020.

With a $936,000 full-year operating cost, CRESS is initially being funded through $250,000 from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, a $90,000 earmark from the state, a $450,000 state grant and $130,000 in the town budget.

In addition to the director, a temporary project manager and temporary transitional assistance coordinator are also to be hired.

Community responders, like police officers, firefighters and paramedics, will be sent to calls by emergency dispatchers, even though when the working group recommended the program it envisioned them being separate from any existing department. That proved to be cost-prohibitive.

Pat Ononibaku, a member of the working group, asked about the current racial makeup of the town’s emergency communications center. Michael Curtin, the dispatch supervisor, said three of the 12 staff identify as members of the Black, Indigenous and people of color community, and one is a native of Germany.

The town’s program will also partner with the African Diaspora Mental Health Association, an outpatient mental health clinic based in Springfield.

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