Groups call for $2.7M cut to Amherst police budget

  • Amherst Police Station  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 7:08:56 PM

AMHERST — A call for cutting $2.7 million from the Amherst Police Department budget, which is more than half the money it would receive in the next fiscal year, is being made to the Town Council and Finance Committee by two newly formed groups.

The Amherst Racial Equity Task Force and Defund 413 Amherst, both of which are getting support from the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, are making the appeal as hearings begin Monday on the budgets proposed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

The groups also are asking the Town Council to establish a Commission on Police Practices, to increase the department’s transparency and accountability, and to put more municipal money into mental health services, services for homeless individuals and youth programming.

Bockelman’s budget proposal for the police department includes $5.15 million, an increase of $108,683, to support 50 positions and maintain the existing service levels.

Rick Last, a leader with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and resident of Amherst for 25 years, said in a statement that the hope is to shift funds from policing to provide trained mental and medical health workers and housing advocates as first responders.

Last suggests Amherst could adopt something akin to the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, program in Eugene, Oregon, which sends trained crisis workers to behavioral health crisis calls instead of police.

“It is counterproductive, and potentially dangerous, to the health of our community to have untrained, armed and uniformed police respond to non-violent 911 crisis calls,” Last said.

The new groups, formed following George Floyd’s killing by police officers in Minneapolis, argue that even in Amherst there has been racialized targeting of residents, and the town should end the practice of sending police officers to mental health crises, and instead create and fund an alternative responder program.

During a community conversation last week, Bockelman was asked about cutting the police department’s budget and whether an alternative responder program would be possible.

Bockelman said the town will discuss public safety services in the coming months, but not rush any changes.

“Making quick decisions at this moment without a plan for what we want to do is not a wise thing to do for the town,” Bockelman said about possible reductions in the police budget.

Amherst resident Amilcar Shabazz said that former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, in a report commissioned by the University of Massachusetts following the 2014 Blarney Blowout, recommended an enhanced public complaint process for police, as well as a Citizen Advisory Board as a way to improve the department’s processes and transparency to the community.

A Commission on Police Practices, for instance, would be a way to enhance the complaint process and investigate complaints against officers. This could be done by having subpoena power and being able to call witnesses and request records related to its investigations. This commission might also make recommendations to the police department on disciplinary decisions for officers, and offer budget advice to town councilors.

Lydia Irons, founding member of Defund 413 Amherst, said that she supports real change even though the town has argued it has promoted progressive policing, racial equity and inclusivity.

Racial Equity Task Force member Demetria Shabazz said that “budgeted funds should include ongoing anti-racism training within the department” that would be mandatory for all police.

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


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