Policing alternative: how it would work

Editor’s Note: A public forum on this program will be held this Thursday, Sept. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. See end of this post for Zoom information.

By Bernie Kubiak

In response to concerns about policing in Amherst, a Community Safety Working Group was convened by the Town Manager and endorsed by the Town Council. The group’s charge is to study the public safety services provided by the Amherst Police Department to ensure racial equity, recommend reforms to organizational and oversight structures, and examine existing Town funding priorities for community safety. Underpinning the committee’s work is a research report prepared by the 7 Generations Movement Collective (7GenMC), contracted for by the Town.

The working group’s intention is to make recommendations that are anti-racist and equitable, and propose preventive services that reduce the need for public safety involvement. Their initial report contains several recommendations, among them:

  1. Create a “Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service” (CRESS) program;
  2. Create an Amherst Resident Oversight Board;
  3. Create a Town Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
  4. Develop a Youth Empowerment Center and a BIPOC cultural center;
  5. Reduce the size of the Amherst Police Department; and
  6. Continue the Community Safety Working Group.

One recommendation under active development is the CRESS program, a variation on the theme set by CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore. In operation for almost 30 years, CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) is a mobile crisis intervention program that assists the Police Department by taking social services calls, including crisis counseling, where there is no apparent need for an armed officer.

CAHOOTS is funded through the police budget. There is widespread agreement that CAHOOTS, by providing trained crisis management staff, has worked to reduce police violence, and it is supported by local law enforcement. Eugene has a population of around 170,000, and the program’s budget is $2 million a year.

The CRESS proposal, which is seen as helping to dismantle systemic racism, sets out a number of elements: two two-person multi-racial teams, available on a 24/7 basis, operating independently of the Police Department but cooperating with it. CRESS teams could be sent out either from the Town’s Communications Center or by a separate CRESS-staffed dispatch center. Team members are to be Town employees, supported by program supervisors and a director.

CRESS teams would be the first responders in situations that do not involve violence or serious criminal activity. They would address homeless individuals, intoxication/substance abuse, mental health crises, trespassing, and wellness checks. They would be available to intervene in the schools as well. The responders could not order treatment or compliance and would rely on the police if violence occurs.

The working group’s report calls for the program to be fully operational by 2022. Both the Town Manager and the Council support the goal, but putting the program as described in place will be a challenge. The most obvious difficulty is the program’s proposed first-year cost of $2.8 million for 26 staff, 12 of them responders (at four staff per shift). The proposal also calls for a separate 24/7 dispatch operation that would add to the overall costs. While the Town’s pay scales were used to determine salaries, no explanation was given as to how salary levels and step raises were determined.

But only $475,000 has been identified to fund a startup, with $180,000 reallocated from the police budget (two unfilled patrol positions) and targeted for initial staff hires (program director and four responders). Planning, training, consults, and equipment are budgeted at $250,000 from Rescue Plan Act funding. An estimated $45,000 for benefits would have to be made up, and may be covered through a $90,000 earmark in the recently passed state budget.

The Town Manager is optimistic that grant funds can be obtained, and the Council insists that a way to fund eight responders be found. One way to fund the program would be to reduce the size of the Police Department. The 7GenMC report suggests moving from a staffing level of 44 to 25 over five years, by abandoning the community policing model and shifting to a more reactive approach.

The CRESS teams are projected to reduce the number of calls managed by the police. The question is how much of a reduction would actually occur, given that no substantial assessment of police activity was available when the report was written. That assessment was promised but has yet to be published. The current year’s operating budget for the police (not including facility or communications center costs) is $5.18 million, so a fully functional CRESS program would amount to slightly more than half of the police budget.

There is much to be worked out to bring a community responder program into operation. Costs can be reduced by eliminating the proposed separate dispatch system. The Public Safety Communications Center could be used to dispatch non-police teams, eliminating the need for staffing a second center (and the confusion that could come from having two). Having comprehensive job descriptions for CRESS staff would allow an accurate determination of salaries. Agreement on the nature of CRESS activities and the impact on police operations would allow a more precise determination of staffing needs. Purchasing the services rather than creating a new town department might be considered as well.

The Town Manager envisions an implementation team composed of the Police and Fire Chiefs, Finance Director, Human Resources, working group representatives and others. The team, Town Hall, and Town Council have a considerable amount of work to do to implement a community responder program and find a path to financial sustainability.

To participate in the Sept. 9 forum, go to: https://amherstma.zoom.us/s/85733815330#success Or join by phone: 253-215-8782 or 346-248-7799 Webinar ID: 857 3381 5330
Amherst, MA 01002