Residents tell Amherst council to cut police budget, reallocate spending

  • Some Amherst residents called on the Town Council this week to slash funding for police in the town budget.

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2022 9:41:09 PM

AMHERST — As a new town department begins this spring that will handle some emergency dispatch calls with unarmed community responders, some residents are again appealing to the Town Council to make significant cuts to the police department.

At the initial public hearing this week on Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s $89.9 million budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1, representatives of Defund 413 Amherst and others took aim, as they have the past two years, at police spending.

“The reallocation of these funds will allow for better public services that center racial and environmental justice and that will actually serve the community’s needs,” Andrea Munoz-Ledo, an Amherst College student, said at the Monday hearing.

While the new Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service, or CRESS, department is getting $300,000 in the town budget and significant financial support, including state grants, from other sources, it is not receiving the full $2.2 million recommended by the Community Safety Working Group. In addition, other recommended programs to benefit the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community are also absent from the budget.

Kaylee Brow, a 10-year resident of Amherst, said the sharp increase in mental health issues shouldn’t be addressed by police, though officers are responding to these calls.

“It’s really alarming to see that over 900 times, armed police officers showed up to mental health calls,” Brow said of the past year’s call logs. “It’s not OK, it’s not really effective and it really needs to stop.”

One plan offered up by Defund 413 would be to make a 47% cut to the $5.08 million in proposed police spending in the budget, which is $56,047, or 1.1% less, than the $5.14 million spent this year. The budget supports 48 police officer positions, or two fewer than were in the budget two years ago.

During the 47 minutes of public comment, a handful of other issues were addressed.

Peter Demling, a member of the School Committee, spoke in favor of the originally proposed $25.53 million elementary school budget, which fully restores art and technology instruction at the three elementary schools but is $53,000 over Finance Committee guidance. His proposal will need a two-thirds vote by the Town Council to restore that spending.

Demling said this spending should be approved because the town is receiving $64,000 more in state aid associated with schools than when the guidance was issued, half from Chapter 70 state aid and half from a COVID-related paid leave program.

“In other words, the school budget proposal doesn’t cost the town any more than what the town determined it could afford for the schools when it issued its guidance,” Demling said.

Vira Douangmany Cage of Longmeadow Drive said she is concerned that the town plans to invest $260,000 in new police cruisers in the capital budget, yet is deferring purchase of necessary fire equipment.

Amherst resident Allegra Clark read a list of what she would like to see in the budget, with much of her comments written in haiku form. She said defunding the police and enhancing CRESS should be priorities, as well as opening a BIPOC youth center, improving roads and offering a translation service so people who speak all languages can participate in town programs.

Birdy Newman, a Mount Holyoke student and Amherst resident, also pushed for defunding police and enhancing CRESS.

Others spoke to the town failing to move forward with some of the Community Safety Working Group’s recommendations, including the youth center and a BIPOC cultural center. “It’s going to be really disappointing if we don’t fully meet the charge they gave us,” resident Zoe Crabtree said.

Demetria Shabazz of South Amherst said action, rather than doing more studies, is needed.

“Once again the poor, the marginalized, the underrepresented, such as the youth, BIPOC people in this community and seniors, are being ignored,” Shabazz said. “As a resident, I’m really disappointed and upset.”

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

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