Amherst council hears calls to cut police, boost alternative response team

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-18-2023 4:36 PM

AMHERST — Calls for cutting the town’s Police Department budget nearly in half and using the savings to turn the unarmed community responders department into an around-the-clock operation are again being made to the Town Council.

At Monday’s hearing on the proposed $93.46 million budget plan for fiscal 2024, both oral and written comments from the public mostly centered on cutting the police force, which has become a common appeal since George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis in 2020.

“I’m asking you to move money out of the APD budget so our town can more fully invest in alternatives to policing,” said Zoe Crabtree, a District 5 resident and organizer of the Defund413 movement in town.

The proposed budget includes $5.15 million for police, with $4.82 million for personnel services, and $641,520 for the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service, with $618,520 for personnel services.

Crabtree said that CRESS, which became operational last summer, is already handling many calls for service before even being dispatched to 911 calls, yet is only 12% the size of the Police Department, and only 23% the size of the department envisioned by the Community Safety Working Group.

Allegra Clark, a District 2 resident who chairs the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, said her hope is that CRESS will be a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation soon. To accomplish this, Amherst will need to reallocate police funding.

“We are requesting that be done to the tune of 47% of the personnel budget of the Amherst Police Department,” Clark said. “Again, fund CRESS, not cops.”

Clark also asked that the elementary schools get a $26.02 million budget as requested by the School Committee, or $84,000 more than the $25.93 million recommended by the Town Council, This money could help offset layoffs of library paraeducators.

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Meanwhile, Crabtree also questioned the $225,000 in the capital improvement plan that would purchase three hybrid electric police cruisers.

“I’m in full support of the move to create an operating budget to operationalize the town’s climate action plan, but greenwashing the police is not the solution,” Crabtree said

Birdy Newman, a District 3 resident, made an appeal in writing to support initiatives like CRESS, as well as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department and outreach to Black, Indigenous and people of color residents.

“I believe that it is crucial to move money out of policing and into alternative response services (CRESS) as well as agencies that can proactively promote justice and community in our town (DEI, a Youth Empowerment Center, and a BIPOC Cultural Center),” Newman wrote.

Lauren Mills of South Amherst said she would like to see the youth empowerment center established along with programs associated with it, though her appeal asked the town to fund these through any remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds available.

The budget is currently going through review by the Finance Committee, which is meeting twice weekly with department heads, and will bring a recommendation to the Town Council for a vote next month.

The lone comment on the budget from a town councilor came from District 3’s Dorothy Pam, who is concerned that, while the budget sets aside child care reimbursements for councilors, nothing is being done to help with stipends. Those remain at $5,000 for each councilor, aside from the president, who gets $7,500.

“Once again we did not put in for an increase in the salary, or honorarium really, for town council members,” Pam said. “I’m very concerned because in order to recruit a diverse and inclusive group of people, we have to change that.”

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