By Nick Grabbe
Two weeks into his job as director of the new community responder program, Earl Miller learned that his sister had died suddenly.
The programs and interventions he plans to create in Amherst could have had an impact on her life if she had had access to them, Miller told me. “The best way to pay tribute to her is to do a good job here,” he said.
Miller received support from Fire Chief Tim Nelson and others as he dealt with his family crisis. Now, after a month in Amherst, he’s working on ways to help others who are experiencing difficulties in their lives, in situations that have previously been handled by the police.
His ground-breaking program, called Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service or CRESS, has been endorsed by the Town Council, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and other leaders of Amherst’s government. At the same time, the program faces some challenges as it seeks to become what Bockelman calls “a third leg of public safety” along with the Police and Fire Departments.
“Mr. Miller knows our regional community and has lived through many experiences. He knows first hand what it takes to help and be helped,” Bockelman wrote to the Town Council. “Mr. Miller has written about racism and the movement to undo psychiatric oppression.”
CRESS will respond to nonviolent calls with an emphasis on approaching community members through an anti-racist and behavioral health lens, according to Miller’s job description. It’s estimated that a third of the calls that police have responded to could be handled by the unarmed CRESS responders.
“They will respond to situations that don’t involve violence or serious criminal activity such as minor disputes and disturbances, loitering, mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespass, truancy, wellness checks, youth and schools,” his job description reads.
CRESS was one of the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group, which was formed two years ago, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Miller said he watched all of the working group’s meetings.
He will be hiring an assistant and eight responders, who will undergo training in de-escalation of conflict, mediation, and CPR. They will then work in shifts 24/7, except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 9 a.m. He said he hopes to have the program staffed by mid-June.
Miller, 35, is a native of Holyoke and currently lives in Agawam. He previously worked for the Department of Mental Health and the Center for Human Development in Springfield. He has two daughters, 11 and 14, and the younger one already loves Antonio’s and will be in the Adventures camp here this summer.
“He’s had a huge impact already,” Bockelman said.
For example, he met with Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, who sometimes has to deal with people who cause disturbances. Miller asked when these disturbances most often occur so that the responders can walk through the library at those times. He spoke of writing a grant to hire a social worker for the library, helping to staff the future teen room, and arranging for a mobile health clinic, Sharry said.
“He also talked about restorative justice,” she wrote in an email to me. “I explained that our dream is to never have to trespass anyone ever again; those are the people that need us the most. He agrees, but also said there does need to be a line; if someone hits someone else, that calls for a one year time out.”
Miller has also spent some time in the high school, where a series of fights in hallways and bathrooms recently prompted five parents to ask the Police Department for help. He met with Principal Talib Sadiq and spoke at an assembly, and also spent time at the middle school. “I want to provide a model for kids when conflict happens,” he said. He shook every hand in one lunchroom.
He has also met with Police Chief Scott Livingstone, who has pledged to work collaboratively with CRESS. “The Police Department is committed to making this as good as it can be,” Miller said. “Folks over there want to be part of the solution.”
One of the challenges CRESS will face is developing clear guidelines for the dispatchers who answer calls for help and will have to decide whether to send a police officer or a community responder. In some cases, the response will be clear, but there will be “a ton of gray area,” Bockelman said. Domestic disturbances might seem to be CRESS’s turf, but they can be dangerous even for police, and the responders need to feel safe, he said.
Another challenge will be operating an entirely new program with few models or clear ways to measure success. Miller, who will be based in the Bangs Center, must cooperate with the Police Department but also answer to the working group, which wanted more funding and coverage for CRESS.
Miller was asked if CRESS is “set up to fail.” “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought that,” he said. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
If CRESS is to become a long-term alternative to the police, a year from now there will be a funding challenge. The current $936,000 budget includes only $130,000 of town money, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments, money that’s unlikely to be available again. This is not a “defund the police” program, and Bockelman said he expects no decline in demand for the Police Department’s services.
The debate over continued or expanded funding for CRESS could be happening at the same time as a vote on raising taxes to help finance construction of a new elementary school. Major financial commitments to a new fire station and public works headquarters are also on the horizon.
“There will be difficult conversations ahead, but we’re all in this together,” Miller said.
He received a warm reception from 40 people as Bockelman introduced him at a public get-together at the Bangs Center Friday. “The reason I took this job is I saw the work you put in and I agreed with the mission because it was meaningful to me,” Miller said.