This week, the Town of Amherst’s Community Safety Working Group has revealed some of the items requested in its proposal for the future of policing in the town, to be decided on in an upcoming May 3 Town Council budget meeting. It proposes slashing the $5.15 million Amherst Police Department (APD) budget in order to fund a separate $2.2 million Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) program, complete with its own director, dispatchers, responders, equipment and office, in addition to $1.17 million set aside for initiatives “to create a safer and more inclusive community.”
The CRESS program proposal is the result of nearly five months of working group meetings and research aimed at identifying alternative community safety models that would prioritize racial equity, and the APD has not yet commented on the proposed changes. It comes about as states, cities and colleges across the country have reimagined policing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s expanse in support following the death of George Floyd.
As the Editorial Board reflected on these recent developments, we came to the conclusion that there was no longer any way to defend the process by which Amherst College has reimagined policing or the continuation of the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) as an institution. To put it more simply, we have come to support the Amherst Association of Students (AAS) and Black Student Union’s (BSU) call for not just disarmament but ultimately, the abolition of the ACPD.
First and foremost, the working group proposal demonstrates how differently outside groups can reimagine policing from the police themselves — their proposed independent civilian safety institution stands in clear contrast to the community service officers (CSOs) proposed by ACPD Chief John Carter. Under Carter’s vision, CSOs would be civilian officers serving under the Police Chief, more akin to officers-in-training than separate safety workers.
Some colleges have moved to disarm police departments as a response to student activism, such as our Five College neighbors Smith College and Mount Holyoke College. This was also the initial demand of the BSU and AAS here at the college, though it was met with outright dismissal by Carter, who said these disarmed departments essentially function as “security department[s] with some arrest authority.”
This dismissal completely disregarded, however, the possibility that endowing public safety workers with arrest authority enables the exact kind of harmful policy and practice that students, especially students of color, are trying to avoid.
In recognition of this fact, other colleges, like Hampshire (one of our five-college counterparts) and Wesleyan, have abandoned the idea of a commissioned police department altogether. Wesleyan’s Office of Public Safety operates as a security department, and therefore has greater liberty in determining policy than a commissioned police department would, as its director, formerly director of Police Services at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse has acknowledged.
Carter himself noted that the ACPD has only needed to display weapons once in over 60 years, meaning the majority of the work the police do at the college is related to health emergencies and rule enforcement, such as making sure people are in the right place at the right time. As the pandemic has unfolded on campus, community development coordinators have been responsible for enforcing rules, and some students have noted that even this has maintained the “carceral” dynamic between officials and students of color that the college community seeks to prevent.
While we still believe the college’s needs can be best met by its own security team, rather than constant outsourcing to the APD, we see little evidence that commissioned officers should be the ones serving those needs or even reimagining safety for the future. Instead, an abundance of evidence suggests that students would feel safer with a safety body planned by civilians, led by civilians and made up of civilians.
This isn’t a new idea. As public school districts around the country have struggled with replacing armed police and security guards with workers who made students feel safer, reimagined public safety has often featured “unarmed staffers focused on conflict resolution” rather than rule enforcement. There is no reason colleges can’t do the same.
College police departments only became a norm in the 1960s, as a response to police crackdowns on student protest. Obviously, the solution hasn’t worked, as campus police officers have been involved in scandals and even shootings across the country, training and operating much the same as their municipal counterparts do. At the very least, the Town of Amherst proposal shows we can imagine something better than what we have right now.
It is for this reason that we call on the administration to abolish the ACPD and begin a civilian-led reimagining of community safety at Amherst College that takes into account the desires and needs of the student body. Policing hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something new.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 7; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 5).