Amherst council resists pressure, keeps police budget intact

  • Amherst Police Station FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2020 12:48:31 PM

AMHERST — A budget that keeps the existing police force intact, though temporarily freezes the filling of two anticipated full-time officer vacancies for six months, was unanimously approved by the Town Council Monday.

Despite significant pressure from two community groups calling for a cut of more than half the department’s $5.15 million budget, the council, by a 12-0 vote, supported a Finance Committee recommendation for the full $68.03 million fiscal year 2021 budget proposed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman. District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz was absent.

At Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said cutting the budget or forming a study committee to deal with issues raised by Defund 413 Amherst and the Amherst Racial Equity Task Force doesn’t create real change, and that following in the steps of Northampton City Council’s “bizarre” 10% reduction to its police department budget would be irresponsible.

“Doing what Northampton does is not something Alisa ever wants Amherst to do,” Brewer said. “Period. End of story.”

Bockelman said the vote leaves police at 46 full-time officers when fully staffed for the duration of the freeze, in effect through Jan. 31. How it affects operations is unclear, though the department is often at less than full strength due to a cycle of retirements and departures and the time it takes to put new officers through police academy and training.

Specifically, the vote calls for the positions to remain unfilled until Bockelman, in consultation with the Town Council, and town residents, “has fully explored alternative options of providing services and presented the results to the Town Council no later than Jan. 31, 2021.”

The sentiment from councilors was that police provide an essential service to Amherst, even as the killing of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis has raised concerns about how policing affects communities of color.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said public safety officers in Amherst respond to the community’s needs. At the same time, Hanneke said she understands that the councilors need to listen to people of color about how they feel toward law enforcement.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said that police provide around the clock service in Amherst, and that no alternatives for this have yet been developed.

Removing money from the police department’s budget, rather than freezing some spending, would mean losing that money, said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Griesemer said the way to do change is to have “honest, thoughtful, respectful” conversations in advance of next year’s budget process.

The councilors are listening and want to make sure the issues surrounding disparate treatment of residents of color are addressed, said District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said the temporary freeze gives ad hoc committees time to report on restructuring how Amherst is served and whether there would be room for hiring social workers who could take on some of the work police currently do.

Though District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis supported what she sees as a compromise to freeze rather than eliminate positions, she also promised to hold her colleagues’ feet to the fire “because we need that.” DeAngelis said she wants to make sure that the decision becomes more than symbolic.

In approving the budget by a unanimous vote, District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said one worry he had is that the council’s unanimous approval of the police budget might make it appear that the Town Council is doing nothing to meet the demands of the community.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said she is excited about the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, and agrees that radical change is needed.

“I’d even support a 10% shift as they did in Northampton,” DuMont said.

For representatives of Defund 413 Amherst, which had pushed for a $2.7 million cut through a petition and a rolling car rally through town Monday with stops at the homes of councilors, the vote fell short of their demands.

Lydia Irons, a lead organizer, expressed disappointment to the council that it would have to wait for change, quoting author and activist James Baldwin.

“It takes my father’s time, it takes my mother’s time, it takes my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time,” Irons said. “How much time do you want for progress?”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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