Interim CRESS leaders stir alarm: Two from police, fire

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 09-19-2023 2:23 PM

AMHERST — A proposed interim leadership team to oversee the town’s unarmed community responders program is raising worries for members of the town’s social justice committee because of its inclusion of representatives from other public safety departments.

With Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service Director Earl Miller remaining on a paid administrative leave that began in August, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee was informed at its Sept. 13 meeting by Pamela Nolan Young, the head of the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department, that she, along with CRESS implementation manager Kat Newman, Police Sgt. Janet Griffin and Fire Chief Tim Nelson, are being put in charge of the department.

“The four of us are scheduled to meet to help work with the department to ensure that it continues on its mission,” Young said. “The goal is to really make sure that we are setting up the department to be successful.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman confirmed to the Town Council the intent of the temporary plan on Monday, with the goal of building relationships across the public safety departments.

Calling this period a “reflection point” for the department that began with Miller’s hiring in March 2022, Young said there is an opportunity for a reset of the department, which has eight responders, and to make improvements based on input from national and state experts in the emerging field.

But the temporary leadership plan is not sitting well with those who have advocated for an alternative to police to handle certain nonviolent emergency calls.

“I’m extremely, extremely, extremely concerned with what is going on with CRESS,” said Community Safety and Social Justice Committee member Debora Ferreira.

Ferreira noted Miller’s leave began more than a month ago, meaning the responders have been left to “flounder” for five weeks. “This cannot continue to infinity. This has to be resolved,” Ferreira said.

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Her fear, she said, is that the public safety leaders will change the mission of CRESS, rather than working collaboratively with it. CRESS operates from the upper floor of the Bangs Community Center, at 70 Boltwood Walk, and partners with mental health agencies that have staff available to work with individuals in need of counseling.

“I do not think that law enforcement should be on the leadership team at all. It’s counterintuitive to what CRESS is all about,” said committee member Everald Henry.

Henry said in Miller’s absence, there should have been opportunities for others to be elevated to a leadership role.

“Was there no number two?” Henry said.

Young said the interim team will have conversations about how to best support the department and provide management and leadership, and will help with policies and procedures. She added that the committee needs to understand that CRESS is a a public safety department, unlike Northampton’s Division of Community Care, which is embedded in the public health realm.

One of the challenges since CRESS responders hit the streets after Labor Day 2022 is the working relationship with town police, Young said. A recently revised collective bargaining agreement with the patrol union is allowing this, but there are still other obstacles, including with the Services Employees International Union over whether dispatchers are allowed to direct calls to them. Young is confident that the adjusted collective bargaining agreements will strengthen the role CRESS plays in town.

Still, Ferreira said there was a lot of resistance to the department in Amherst and a lot of people want it to fail.

“For me, I’m really frustrated and annoyed that there hasn’t been a plan in place,” Ferreira said. She also advocated for one of the responders, with a majority coming from the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, to be put in charge, but Young explained that as part of a union, that transition would require collective bargaining.

Committee Chairwoman Allegra Clark said there is evidence that CRESS is an understaffed department and that the town has implemented the structure without enough resources.

“I do think that this is showing that the program as a whole is under-resourced in terms of the staffing level and staffing structure in a scenario that we may not have predicted,” Clark said.

Those who served on the Community Safety Working group, which recommended a bigger department, expressed dismay during public comment.

Brianna Owen, who co-chaired the working group, said she is concerned police would have any involvement in day-to-day operations of CRESS. “I think this reset could be very damaging for the longevity of the CRESS program,” Owen said.

Similarly, Ellisha Walker, an at-large councilor who also co-chaired the working group, said she appreciates Young stepping forward to do more work beyond what she already does in her office. The problems show how not forming CRESS as recommended with an assistant director and its own dispatchers could pose problems, she said.

“I think we’re learning now that we made some bad decisions,” Walker said. “I think it’s time now to correct those decisions and make better decisions.”

Walker also worries that the interim leadership team could change the core mission of CRESS.

Former working group member Pat Ononibaku said CRESS was set up to fail because funding is not stable and there was no second in command. Onononbaku said anyone with people and social work skills could have taken the leadership role, rather than turning to current public safety officials.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard to be creative in appointing someone, a retired social worker or a psychologist,” Ononibaku said.

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