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Amherst eyes civilian oversight board for police

  • Police Chief Scott Livingstone said Amherst has never had residents responsible for examining policies or involved in internal investigations, but that he’s open to suggestions. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

AMHERST — The town is set to explore the creation of a civilian oversight board for the police department and making changes to law enforcement responsibilities as protests for racial justice continue in cities across the country.

The Town Council on Monday discussed ways that policing in Amherst can better promote equity and racial justice. The dialogue follows a recent community discussion spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as the deaths of other unarmed black individuals including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis supports a citizens review board for the police department that would have regular input from residents on how policies and procedures are enacted.

“I did not get a feel that the department would be resistant to that, which was a really good thing to hear,” DeAngelis said, referring to the police department’s leadership.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said a task force could explore and make recommendations on topics such as how police officers use force and how discipline is handled within the department. This could improve police responses in the community, she said.

“I felt it could be done in a friendly manner, because I don’t think doing it in an unfriendly manner is going to get us very far,” Pam said.

Other councilors noted worries with how policing is done in Amherst. District 3 Councilor George Ryan said police now deal with issues for which officers may not be trained, such as responding to calls about homelessness and people with mental health issues.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he would like to see whether it would be possible if someone without a weapon could handle more of the noncriminal complaints.

“When we are responding to noise complaints, when we are responding to traffic violations, does whoever is responding need a firearm?” Ross said.

Many councilors, along with Town Manager Paul Bockelman, participated in a recent community discussion about ways to improve policing in Amherst.

Organized by Gazit Chaya Nkosi, a member of the Human Rights Commission, and University of Massachusetts professors Demetria Shabazz and Amilcar Shabazz, their aim was to see if there are ways to reallocate resources, through what Nkosi calls both investment and divestment budget strategies, that would move away from policing as the blanket response to all issues.

“Such action would take social services off the police’s load while also reducing the need for policing as we strengthen community support networks,” Nkosi said.

Earlier meetings have focused on racial profiling and bias in schools, public safety, town government and businesses, Nkosi said. With respect to emergency response procedures, Nkosi said they could be modeled after ones that have been in existence for decades in Eugene, Oregon.

Demetria Shabazz said the forum was a way to begin meaningful conversations in the community about systemic issues of racism and inequities.

During the meeting, Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Capt. Gabriel Ting responded to questions, such as the possibility of statewide licensing of police, protocols for tracking use of force by officers, how to de-escalate various situations, and what citizen oversight might look like.

Livingstone said Amherst has never had residents responsible for examining policies or getting involved in internal investigations.

“It’s an area I’m very open to suggestions and having communication about that, and really, what would the community like?” Livingstone said.

Bockelman said he appreciates discussions toward finding ways to align budget priorities with the community’s beliefs, noting that conversations are already happening at Town Hall about racial inequities.

Even with what he said are progressive policies and progressive leadership in the police department, Bockelman said a growing number of responsibilities are placed on police. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, it is police officers who have been called to respond to reports of people not wearing masks or face coverings in public, or not properly social distancing.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she appreciated the commitment by Livingstone, Ting and Bockelman to continue to listen and to do better, and is encouraged about having more community forums.

“I think it was a really good first conversation to be had,” Bahl-Milne said.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she wants to hear more from the community, including the Human Rights Commission and other groups in town, before establishing a task force that would be responsible for unveiling recommendations.

Whatever happens, Bockelman said he sees this as a unique opportunity and time, and that there is momentum for making sure all voices are heard to the Town Council.

“They need a venue to speak, and they want to speak truth to power,” Bockelman said.