Working Group: Racial bias still rules in Amherst

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Community Safety Working Group was contacted with a video of youth being harassed by officers from the Amherst Police Department. We were informed that on July 4, a group of mostly Black, Indigenous and people of color teenagers were at an apartment complex parking lot and one of the teenagers had a flat tire and was waiting on AAA for assistance.

In the midst of this, the youths were approached by the Police Department, not to assist them with the flat tire but to identify them, question them without parental consent, and then later detain them for an alleged noise complaint.

The research and community voices we spent over a year collecting and sharing with the Town Council and town manager are still being silenced. Apartment complexes in Amherst are still being oversurveilled by the Amherst Police Department, youth who have no spaces such as a youth empowerment center are being criminalized, youth and community members are being traumatized and mistreated, while an abuse of power and fear of retaliation continues.

In this instance and others, racial bias continues to lead the way for how the Police Department interacts with BIPOC community members. Accountability and restorative justice continue to be ignored.

Throughout last year we have heard every obstacle to implementing all of our recommendations (municipality procedures, budgetary restrictions, attorneys in negotiation, and more), but as we come close to an eight-month mark since the Community Safety Working Group was disbanded, we urge the community to speak up with us.

The recommendations the safety group published reflect and align with the Town Council’s Declaration to Dismantle White Supremacy that put responsibility for the town to “affirm our commitment to eradicating the effects of systemically racist practices of Town government and Town-affiliated organizations.”

The delay in such recommendations are telling as incidents continue to unfold, and while we wait, community members suffer. No action is action.

In 2020, the Amherst town manager and Town Council approved the charge of the Community Safety Working Group to pave the way for racial equity. Our charge was to A) make recommendations on alternative ways of providing public safety services to the community; and B) to make recommendations on reforms to the organizational and oversight structures of the Police Department through a racial equity lens.

Our approach to community safety was built around a holistic approach. We unanimously came to the conclusion that we needed to go beyond designing the best response to public safety incidents, and to include recommendations for preventing the kind of situations that have led to calls for police involvement.

We need to enable all members of our community to feel valued, included, respected and served. This informed a number of our recommendations.

July 5 was a historic milestone for our community to swear in eight community responders for the Community Responders for Equity Safety and Service, or CRESS, to provide safety services centered around anti-racism and trauma informed care.

We are also urging town leaders to allow CRESS to take on noise complaint calls so incidents such as this do not turn into detainment of youth, abuse of power, and a lack of individual and parental rights for BIPOC community members.

While we are excited to support this new department, we are still advocating for the recommendations from Part B of our charge to ensure Amherst is continuing to make strides toward equity for its residents who identify as BIPOC.

With no progress on our recommendations for reducing the size of the Police Department, moving all nonviolent calls to CRESS, creating a Resident Oversight Board, community visioning, creating an anti-racist culture at the Police Department, and other important policy changes, harmful incidents continue to plague the BIPOC community.

This column was co-written by Tashina Bowman, Darius Cage, Débora Ferreira, Pat Ononibaku, Brianna Owen, Co-Chair, Russ Vernon-Jones, and Ellisha Walker, co-chair.