Amherst Town Council passes restorative justice measures

Nov. 21, 2022 | Rory Liddy

AMHERST – The Amherst Town Council met on Nov. 14 and passed three new motions regarding restorative justice measures following the July 5 incident wherein an Amherst Police Department (APD) officer was caught on tape telling a minor “you don’t have any rights.” This meeting, and the approved motions, ended the months-long saga of debate and dissension among the town council on the issue.

The first motion passed was made by council President Lynn Griesemer.

“That the Town Council requests that the town manager – working with the DEI Department and other staff: 1) Propose to the Town Council a plan for community visioning with a focus on public safety and social justice; 2) Propose to the Town Council a plan for the creation of a Resident Oversight Board, with possible assistance from and hire, as appropriate, a consultant to help with the development of that plan; 3) Organize a review of public safety protocols for responding to and handling public safety calls involving all residents including minors, in order to recommend changes to those protocols, if appropriate.”

The first measure continues, explaining work that the Town Council must continue to do, including developing a communication plan to raise awareness in the community about their efforts.

It continues, “4) Continue to develop protocols for CRESS regarding active engagement by community responders; 5) Continue the work already begun on exploring options for a youth empowerment center; 6) Provide training regarding racial equity, rights, and other options for training to employees and members of the public; and 7) Develop a communications plan to raise awareness in the community about these efforts; and that the town manager will report on actions to be taken and/or progress in addressing the above, no later than four months from the date of this vote. Draft reports to be available to the council, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee [CSSJC], and the Human Rights Commission [HRC], as well as the public, no less than two weeks prior to the Town Council meeting where the items will be discussed; that CSSJC and HRC provide written advice to the Town Council 5 days prior to the Town Council Meeting at which the items will be discussed; that the Town Council will discuss the Manager’s report and both committee reports, and will hold a discussion that includes public comment.”

The second and third motions passed were originated by Councilor Ellisha Walker, and go hand in hand with each other. The first of these motions calls for APD policy updates.

“Recommend the Town Manager to work with the APD to review and update, if appropriate, selected policies of the APD. This review shall be including but not limited to: Use of force policy, Consent searches, and Low-level and pretextual stops.”

The second involves creating an anti-racist culture within the APD.

“Recommend the town manager assist the APD in building upon current efforts and identifying steps to develop a proactive, anti-racist culture in the Amherst Police Department and that it be documented and regular updates be provided to the Council.”

Councilors Pat DeAngelis and Ana Devlin Gauthier “called the question” on these motions respectively, which means that the debate surrounding them must come to an end, and that these motions are final.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman gave a speech during the meeting apologizing for what he believed to be his mistakes since first learning of the incident on July 5, starting with apologizing to the youth involved in the incident.

“I want to talk about what happened that night and in the following weeks and months. We acknowledged the mistake but did not apologize to those whose trust we had violated. In failing to do so, we left the impression that this mistake was acceptable in our community. It was not. It is not. Our failure, my failure, took a negative situation and made it worse. Much time has passed, but that failure must still be corrected. To the youth present that evening, I apologize. You should never have a moment’s doubt about your rights, or about the obligation of the police department to protect those rights. In all of the town’s services, we need to approach youth with the same courtesy and professionalism with which we approach older adults.”

Next, Bockelman addressed the police department.

“Second, I want to apologize to the police department. I have great respect for the department and its officers. They are professional, dedicated and work every day and night to make the right decision in difficult situations. My failure to act immediately cast doubts on the department which is unfair. Our concern about what we heard on July 5 should not be used to undermine the department’s important service to the town.”

He then spoke to the town council, the CSSJC and HRC.

“Third, I want to apologize to the town council, the CSSJC and the HRC. You have dedicated significant time, energy and emotion to moving us toward a safer and more just community. Your challenge, our challenge, is daunting, but above all else, success requires trust and respect for the new members who bring their experiences and doubts to the table. I can see that my failure to acknowledge our error on this issue may have contributed to feelings of mistrust, and I truly regret that.”

He addressed the whole community and the way forward.

“Lastly, I apologize to the larger community. Amherst is a caring community committed to progress. You recognize that no one is perfect, but when public officials make a mistake, you rightly expect us to admit it, take corrective action and learn from it. As we become better moving forward, I will be more explicit about how I am learning from this incident, and how the town will improve upon the lessons learned.”

Finally, Bockelman pledged to meet with all parties involved to learn more about the situation and the harm it caused, in addition to the actions listed in the motions that were passed.

“I’m reaching out to each individual involved with this incident. For the youth, I’d like to meet with you individually with your parents if you are willing to help me learn more about the incident and its impact on you. I, along with the DEI director and police chief, will be available to meet with you to discuss your experiences, reactions and ideas for restorative work. I hope you’ll take me up on that. As our DEI director reminds us, as a community we must have the courage to admit a mistake and act to correct it, the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation and the capacity to give and show grace. In offering my apologies, belated they may be, I ask that we continue to work together as we move forward to do the important work that is before us.”

In other news, Melissa Loidice-Walker was approved as Amherst’s new human resources director during the meeting.

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