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Amherst town manager’s advisory panel would chart path to police review

  • Paul Bockelman



Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2020

AMHERST — By early next summer, Town Manager Paul Bockelman hopes to have reports in hand laying out alternative options for public safety services that are currently provided by police as well as a way to establish resident oversight and introduce policy changes for the police department.

Despite a noncommittal reception at Monday night’s Town Council meeting to his plans for creating an advisory board, residents and council members offered advice for improving Bockelman’s proposal, including making the advisory board more separate from municipal government and independent of police, and ensuring it has enough time to handle the work its members will be assigned.

In a memo, Bockelman outlined his concept for appointing a nine-member task force, to be called the Community Safety Working Group, that will work to ensure racial and social justice values are being incorporated into law enforcement in Amherst.

“To have a vibrant and inclusive community, the people and communities most affected by issues need to be kept at the center of the discussion and decision-making process,” Bockelman wrote. “It is important that this work lead with racial equity and focus on human-centered design.”

Bockelman’s proposal to create an advisory committee that would report to him comes in response to council instructions adopted in July that also leave the police department with two unfilled positions until the end of January, the town manager said.

The council issued its order to combat racial inequality amid calls for cutting the police department budget in half from locally formed groups, including Defund 413 Amherst and the Racial Equity Task Force.

“It’s an enormous task, and it will be a challenge to get it completed,” Bockelman said, observing that members will collect data, do surveys and meet with members of the public.

Under the plan, the working group would be appointed by Bockelman and begin meeting in late October. At least six members would represent Black, indigenous, people of color, or other historically marginalized communities. Police Chief Scott Livingstone or his designee would serve as an ex officio, non-voting member.

Bockelman said he would look to appoint people with project management skills, human-centered design knowledge or community organizing experience, in addition to being members of impacted resident groups.

By Jan. 15, Bockelman would get a written report on alternative options to public safety services, and by June 30 he would get recommendations for resident oversight of police and policy reforms.

Feedback from councilors and residents at Monday’s council meeting indicated that this would be too much work for one group to handle in the time frame and that no representatives from the police should be part of the effort.

Demetria Shabazz, a member of the Racial Equity Task Force, said the working group should be completely separated from town government, and appointments should not be made by the town manager. She was also concerned with the timeline and that its work might be mostly a “symbolic gesture.”

Lydia Irons, a member of Defund 413 Amherst, said if a public advisory board on public safety is created, no police representation is needed.

“They are inherently biased,” Irons said. “They are part of a longstanding structurally racist system.”

The League of Women Voters also weighed in.

Marcie Sclove, chairwoman of its Racial Justice Task Force, said the working group should be called the resident safety committee.

“This would broaden the mandate beyond just the police to include the role of mental health workers, social workers, intervention specialists, public works, firefighters and paramedics, and teachers,” Sclove wrote. “Such a concept, a safety committee, could help make connections between police and other agencies and individuals who are responsible in different ways for our safety.”