Amherst’s community responders getting early evaluation

  • Kyalo Maingi, left, a member of the Community Responders for Equity Safety and Service, or CRESS, in Amherst, is greeted by Mike Curtin, the head of dispatch for police and fire in Amherst, after the new members of CRESS had been sworn in on July 5. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Vanessa Phillips and Rome Cabrera participate in a role-playing session during a Community Responders Equity Safety and Service department training on Sept 1. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 01, 2023

AMHERST — Amherst’s Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service is still in its infancy, but an evaluation of the unarmed responders program, including the calls it is handling, is expected to soon get underway.

The Town Council voted 11-1 last week, with At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker the lone dissenter, to enter into an agreement with the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute to work with CRESS to analyze outcomes and trends, develop a public communication tool and build out record-keeping systems, among other tasks.

Finance Director Sean Mangano said the Donahue Institute’s work is not about saying whether the program and its eight unarmed responders is working well or not, but rather to make sure information will be available to evaluate how it is functioning.

“We’re looking for help building the systems that will be able to evaluate in the future, and hopefully to do it ourselves, year after year,” Mangano said.

A memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman states that such an evaluation is a requirement of the state’s Department of Public Health Bureau of Community Health and Prevention’s $449,949 award to the town through its Equitable Approaches to Public Safety. Amherst is obligated to use 10% of that grant funding on evaluation services.

“The Town Council has also indicated that the Town should evaluate resident satisfaction, outcomes, activity and service levels as CRESS ramps up and becomes fully operational,” Bockelman wrote.

Bockelman told councilors that he will engage with Donahue about the specifics of the contract, noting that program evaluation is a particular strength for Donahue.

“This is totally in response to our grant requirement with the state Department of Public Health,” Bockelman said.

Being based at UMass, Bockelman said Donahue is also local. In fact, Council President Lynn Griesemer is retired as Donahue’s executive director and is still a senior adviser there. She left the meeting for the council’s discussion and didn’t participate in the vote.

Mangano said the town, in negotiating terms of an arrangement with Donahue, could go beyond June 30. Rates that are paid will be based on a state contract.

Aside from Walker’s voting no, there were no objections from other councilors.

“I totally support doing this,” said District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen.

Schoen did wonder, however, what the content of the evaluation would be without caseloads and before and after data on calls.

“Is six months going to be enough to talk about this in terms of the timing of what they’re going to be looking at?” Schoen asked.

Walker’s objections centered on why Donahue was chosen and not the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a national organization focused on criminal justice reform. “Were any other institutes vetted for this?” Walker asked.

LEAP worked with the town in creating CRESS and gave a report showing that community responders had the potential to annually handle about 4,400 total incidents in Amherst and 2,600 calls currently handled by police.

Distirct 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, too, noted that LEAP has expertise in police alternatives.

Mangano said LEAP hasn’t been involved in CRESS for more than a year. “They stepped away at an earlier point in the implementation of CRESS,” Mangano said.

Donahue, on the other hand, can look at the quantitative data available. “We think Donahue Institute has a particular skill set in analyzing data,” Mangano said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.