Residents: Next Amherst police chief must be ‘culture builder’

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 10:47 AM

AMHERST — In a town with numerous college students, many Black, Indigenous and people of color residents and a sizable number of senior citizens, Amherst’s next police chief will need the ability to listen, to be humble and to build trust, while also having a willingness to change a law enforcement system that some view as being inherently racially biased.

That’s some of the feedback that emerged Tuesday morning at a community listening session designed to give consultants helping find the town’s next police chief a chance to hear from the public.

“Someone who understands racism and white supremacy and who can understand these issues when they come up in his or her department,” is what Kathleen Anderson, former president of the Amherst NAACP, said she would like to see in the next police chief.

Anderson referenced what she termed the “unconscionable” harassment of Black teens by police officers at an incident in July 2022 that prompted Town Manager Paul Bockelman to apologize to the community, youths and town committees pursuing racial justice for failures related to that incident, along with the police department, for casting doubt on it.

For Bonnie Isman, a former director of the Jones Library, the next police chief needs to be an in-charge person with tact and diplomacy, as well as someone who can handle a lot of different communities. “Because this is a complicated town,” Isman said.

About two dozen people came out to the Large Activity Room at the Bangs Community Center to offer their thoughts to representatives from GovHR USA, an Illinois-based consulting company.

The next police chief will succeed Scott Livingstone, who led the department for almost 14 years until his retirement in May. Capt. Gabriel Ting is leading the department on an interim basis.

Rachel Glisper, a vice president at GovHR with 20 years’ experience in human resources focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and Jon Fehlman, GovHR’s senior vice president and a retired police chief, will be writing the job description that will be used to recruit candidates. They will eventually forward finalists to Bockelman, with an appointment to be made by the Town Council.

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Fehlman said it’s important to have the community involved in the conversation. “These meetings have been invaluable to us,” Fehlman said.

In addition to the forum at the Bangs, a second in-person session was scheduled at the Jones Library Tuesday evening. There also will be two daylong Zoom meetings being held Sept. 18 and 19 in which members of the Town Council and Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, and others, will talk to the consultants one-on-one. The consultants will base the job description on themes drawn from the public meetings, as well as talks they are having with department heads and police officers.

Janet McGowan of South East Street said that people want to be heard, and the next police chief should have the ability and willingness to sit down and have a conversation with anyone, including those in opposition. “A lot of people don’t feel listened to,” McGowan said.

Tom Porter, also of South East Street, said the police chief needs to be engaged with the community, accessible and visible, and be able to talk to anyone informally.

Those who served on the Community Safety Working Group, formed in 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and which recommended the creation of the unarmed alternative to police known as the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service, made the case that the next police chief will have to bring change to the department.

Paul Wiley, who co-chaired the working group in its initial stages, said Amherst has to find someone who is fair and reasonable and understands the history of policing and what racial bias is about, and can work well with both police staff and CRESS staff.

Working group member Russ Vernon-Jones said the new police chief can’t see CRESS as a threat, and must ensure its staff is handling all the 911 and emergency calls it should be. “We need a new chief who values CRESS as an equal partner with the CRESS director,” Vernon-Jones said.

Vernon-Jones said what he learned in outreach to the community is that many white people felt served by the police, while BIPOC individuals felt surveilled by officers and that police attempted to control them. That lack of trust needs to be overcome, he said.

The next police chief should be a “culture builder,” he said, who is willing to work with a Resident Oversight Board and end low-level traffic stops, those where a registration might be expired or a license plate light out.

Wiley said a lot of good people work for Amherst police, but systemic racial bias and malaise causes them to suffer. “That system somehow needs to be dismantled and reassembled in a way that will work in Amherst,” Wiley said.

George Ryan, a former member of the Town Council who is running again, said officers feel under the microscope. From his conversations with them, he said they’re proud of the work they do and are progressive in their approach, but are open to change.

“I think a lot of them are hurt,” Ryan said, adding that it’s a shame since most officers like being in Amherst and serving the community.

Maria Kopicki of Country Corners Road said the next chief has to be a leader who will make changes to the system, and should feel some discomfort in doing so.

There was some debate about whether experience in a college town matters. Martha Hanner of Alyssum Drive said the person hired could learn on the job, but Kopicki and Ryan disagreed, saying that experience serving a college community is critical. But no one suggested excluding candidates without a college degree or without significant experience leading a department.

Later this month, Glisper and Fehlman will work with town staff to create a document that will gather interest in the position, then evaluate resumes of candidates forwarded by town staff. Ultimately, three to five candidates will be recommended to the town manager and a search committee.

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