Amherst forums on planned Resident Oversight Board seeks residents’ experiences with police

The Amherst Police Department.

The Amherst Police Department. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-05-2024 9:11 PM

AMHERST — Amherst officials are in the midst of seeking feedback from the public about their interactions with police officers as development of a Resident Oversight Board for the Police Department gets underway.

A recommendation of the Community Safety Working Group in its May 2021 report, creation of the citizen panel has been stalled, in part because the town was unable to hire a consultant last spring to shepherd the work.

Now, with leadership of the town’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinating, three additional public sessions are being held to gather oral and written comments on the Resident Oversight Board, which is being formed to improve racial equity in public safety.

In its report, the working group wrote that the board should have mostly residents who are Black, Indigenous and people of color: “Our recommendation specifies that this board be majority BIPOC and be empowered to investigate complaints about the APD, recommend discipline of police officers, review and make recommendations about APD policy and practices, and invite community input about policing in Amherst.”

Rabbi Debra Kolodny, who brings experience in police accountability after serving as executive director of Portland United Against Hate in Portland, Oregon, is facilitating the forums.

At the first forum held in mid-December, Kolodny said the recommendation from the working group is a rare model, vested with more authority than similar initiatives across the country. Kolodny noted that the recommendations were made before Massachusetts unveiled its Police Officer Standards and Training Commission, which handles complaints of a serious nature made against police officers.

Still, Kolodny has an understanding of ways to improve public safety accountability and experiences for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds from work done in Portland.

The coming conversations, both in person at Town Hall and via Zoom, are being held Jan. 10 and Jan. 18, both at 6 p.m., and Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. Links to participate in these forums virtually can be found on the town website. There are also online surveys available in English, Chinese and Spanish, and translation services will be available for those who attend.

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During the initial forum, Vira Douangmany Cage of Longmeadow Drive shared video from a December incident in which police officers approached young BIPOC men who parked a vehicle at the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course. Douangmany Cage said she was offering input on behalf of those individuals, whom she expected wouldn’t get in touch with town officials unless people who hold power and privilege step aside.

“If the status quo continues, these voices won’t be heard and their wishes won’t be carried out,” Douangmany Cage said.

Amilcar Shabazz of Chapel Road said that the Resident Oversight Board should be seen as a middle ground between abolition of police and the status quo, allowing incidents involving police officers to be looked into and providing an ability for the community to engage with the Police Department and influence change in its standards and practices.

“We critically need this. The reason we need this is problems of our policing system aren’t episodic,” Shabazz said. “This is just an ongoing feature of our society, of our levels of concerns in the public about what it means to have an encounter with police.”