By Nick Grabbe
Residents who have questions about the plan to deploy unarmed responders in some situations that are currently handled by police officers can attend a public forum Thursday.
The virtual meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. Here’s the link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/86008936538. The public comment period is scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m., and will be followed by a meeting of the Town Council’s Town Services and Outreach subcommittee, which will make a recommendation to the full Council. The town manager, finance director, police chief and fire chief are expected to attend and be able to answer questions.
Another topic of the meeting will be the plan to create a new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The community responders would be called on in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime, such as mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespassing, truancy and wellness checks, according to the recommendation by the Community Safety Working Group. They would have expertise as mental health clinicians, social workers, medics or conflict de-escalators.
The eight community responders would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would be supported by a director and an administrative assistant. The responders, who would be fully benefited Town employees, would operate independently of the Police Department and be housed in a separate facility, according to the working group’s recommendation.
“The mission will include contributing to dismantling systemic racism through racially aware safety and social services to persons of all races with a conscious anti-racism focus,” according a summary of the working group’s recommendations by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.
The program is known as CRESS, or Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service. Its projected annual operating budget is $936,000, with $122,500 in non-operating costs. The Town has received a state grant of $450,000 for the program, and $250,000 in federal money has been earmarked.
“The Town may opt to use reserves to supplement the municipal operating budget over two or three years to minimize the impact on other departments,” Bockelman has proposed.
Residents’ questions could include: What kind of relationship will CRESS have with the Police Department? How will 911 operators determine whether to dispatch a police officer or a community responder? How will police staffing be affected? When will the program be operational? How will it be funded in future years?
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “will develop, recommend, and implement a strategic plan that will advance a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture for the Town that provide opportunities to build diversity and inclusive practices into the Town’s operations,” according to Bockelman. “The Office will review Town policies, procedures, bylaws, values, goals and missions through an equity lens to foster an unbiased, anti-racist and inclusive environment.”
The goals are to “improve the Town’s decision-making so that it better represents all communities and includes less bias; increase community trust in local government; ensure an equitable allocation of public resources; and improve employee satisfaction and engagement,” according to Bockelman.
The annual operating costs are estimated at $240,500, including a director and assistant director. The director position is to be funded with money previously budgeted for an economic development director, a position now to be paid for with federal money. The assistant director position is to be paid by combining half of an existing position with federal money.