Amherst town manager acknowledges failures in wake of police-teen interaction caught on video

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Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2022

AMHERST — Town Manager Paul Bockelman is offering apologies to the community, local youth, Amherst police officers and the town committees pursuing racial justice in the latest effort to address the controversial interaction captured on cellphone video between police and teens on the morning of July 5.

Before the Town Council adopted a series of steps Monday for taking corrective action and providing community healing, Bockelman expressed regret for what he described as errors made during the incident, including an officer initially telling youths they have no rights, and by town officials in the months that have followed.

“To the youth present that evening, I apologize,” Bockelman said. “You should never have a moment’s doubt about your rights, or about the obligation of the Police Department to protect those rights.”

Bockelman said the failures must be corrected. Even though the town and Police Department have established processes and there was recognition that what was said by an officer at the time was incorrect, he said, the town has a long way to go to rebuild trust.

“We acknowledged our mistake, but did not apologize to those whose trust we violated,” Bockelman said. “In failing to do so, we left the impression that this mistake was acceptable in our community.”

In his remarks, Bockelman also made an apology to the officers who make up the police force. He acknowledged that a failure to address the situation since July has cast doubt on the department, which he called unfair to the professionals who serve to protect the town.

His apology was also extended to the Town Council, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, and the Human Rights Commission, noting that success requires trust in the larger community. He pledged that he, along with Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Pamela Nolan Young, is willing to meet with families and others about restorative and reconciliation work at any time.

On Tuesday, Bockelman said the apology was necessary. “It seemed like it was the right time to say it,” he said.

Community healing

Bockelman’s apology set the stage for the council’s discussion and subsequent 12-1 vote to direct Bockelman and the DEI Department, along with other staff, to create a plan for addressing the ongoing community concerns that have developed from the police response to a noise complaint about the youths, a portion of which was captured on cellphone video. At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker was the lone dissenter.

The directive includes having town staff develop a racial healing and reconciliation plan and a Resident Oversight Board for the police department, both of which will be brought to the Town Council early next year for possible enactment.

The council is also calling for a review of protocols for handling public safety calls involving all residents, including minors; for providing training regarding racial equity, rights, and other concerns to employees and members of the public; and for continuing work already underway on establishing a youth empowerment center. There will also be specific communication to residents about this work.

Council President Lynn Griesemer described the council’s action as a “milestone,” coming two weeks after councilors rejected forming an ad hoc committee to develop a “proposal for repair and reconciliation.” The vote, she said, shows trust in those the town has hired, including Young.

“We have hired good staff,” Griesemer said.

The fallout from the video continued even after Young determined in August that there was no abuse of power by police officers, and a report issued this fall by Livingstone stating that officers regretted what occurred.

Walker: Actionsaren’t enough

In a later vote Monday, the Town Council advised Bockelman to work with the police to review and update their policies.

But Walker was concerned that the council’s actions don’t go far enough and that there is no specific role for the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and the Human Rights Commission. She proposed a series of amendments that would have established more specific oversight of the Police Department, but which other councilors objected to as potentially micromanaging.

Griesemer called those concepts insulting to how professionals do their work. “We’re not getting out of their way, we’re not letting them do their job,” Griesemer said.

One motion from Walker adopted by the council will have the town manager work with police on pursuing anti-racist practices, which she said would promote the idea of officers actively combating racism. The idea is for the department to develop a proactive, anti-racism culture, and that this work be documented and regular updates be provided to the council.

“What we want here is improvement, and better,” Walker said.

At-Large Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg, Griesemer, District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen and District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne voted against the measure.

Bahl-Milne said her concern is that anti-racist practices should exist in all aspects of town government, and it is unfair to focus only on police. Earlier, she disagreed with Walker’s assertion that the July 5 incident indicated structural racism among police.

Bahl-Milne said there was no reason to believe the Black, Indigenous and people of color youths and white youths were treated differently, and no evidence that officers acted in a racist manner.

The meeting went well over five hours, though after Bockelman issued the apology, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said it appeared to be heartfelt and complete. With knowledge that other things are in motion to improve police practices, she said, no further action might be necessary.

“I don’t see how it gets us anywhere except a dithering, confusing council,” Pam said.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, though, said it was important for the council to act. “To stop now would be a huge mistake,” she said.

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