Amherst seeks members to serve on public safety working group

  • Amherst Police Station GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

AMHERST — An in-depth interview process will be used to make sure Amherst’s diversity is accurately reflected on a new committee examining how public safety is delivered for the town.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman announced last week that he is seeking nine residents to serve on the Community Safety Working Group, which will make recommendations on alternative ways of providing public safety services to the community, as well as changes to the current organizational and oversight structures of the police department.

No fewer than six of the nine voting members will represent Black, indigenous and people of color, or other historically marginalized communities.

Bockelman told the Town Council at its Sept. 21 meeting that he will be appointing an interview team to make sure the working group is appropriately representative when it begins meeting, at least twice monthly, through June 30.

People interested in serving are encouraged to fill out citizen activity forms available on the town website and to send written statements about why they want to serve. Then, interviews will be done and recommendations made to Bockelman for appointments, which will also be reviewed by the Town Council.

The working group comes in response to an order from the council to combat racial inequality amid calls by local groups, including Defund 413 Amherst and the Racial Equity Task Force, to slash the police budget.

Some of the elected councilors expressed concerns at their Sept. 21 meeting about how the working group will be created.

District 2 Councilor Patricia DeAngelis said she feels it is vital that all voices are heard, and wants councilors to see all statements of interest for the committee so that the process is fully transparent.

“You’re basically erasing the possibility of transparency by not having statements of interest available to people on this very, very important committee,” DeAngelis said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen agreed that having a committee with often underrepresented residents will be critical.

But District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he doesn’t care if the council sees the full pool of applicants because he trusts that Bockelman is creating a more rigorous interview process than for other committees.

“We’re not the appointing authority, and I don’t know what value I get from seeing every CAF (citizen activity form) and SOI (statement of interest) that has been submitted by every person,” Ross said.

Bockelman said he appreciates the feedback from councilors encouraging him to bring new voices into the process. As part of his proposal, he is no longer having Police Chief Scott Livingstone or a representative from the police department participate in the working group, though the department will be available as a resource when there are questions.

In a memo to the council, he also refuted the notion that racial equity and racial justice be included in the working group’s title: “The working group should be addressing community safety, with full knowledge that Black and brown people — particularly African American men — have been targeted and have borne the brunt of violence in our country,” Bockelman wrote.

DeAngelis said it would be a disservice to not have racial equity in the name, which would gain some measure of trust for those advocating cutting police funding, and other residents troubled by law enforcement actions across the country.

“It’s sort of like saying if I say Black lives matter, you say all lives matter,” DeAngelis said. “If all lives matter, then why can’t we say Black lives matter?”

Schoen said the working group should be focused on fact-finding and a community-based research approach before it delivers written reports to the town manager.

“I do want to keep the lens open to racial justice, but also social justice,” Schoen said.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl Milne said the working group may want to include business leaders, school officials and others, in addition to BIPOC residents.

“It’s really an opportunity for police to listen to community members, to participate in the process and to be part of the solution,” Bahl-Milne said.

District 3 Councilor George Ryan said the working group, and the Town Council, should not lose sight of the many services the police department provides beyond law enforcement, including helping people with mental health issues and homelessness, and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.