NORTHAMPTON — State lawmakers in favor of law enforcement alternatives are pushing for passage of the ACES Act, a bill before the State’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Legislature that would provide funding for new community unarmed intervention programs.
Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, both Northampton Democrats, are among those calling for a favorable report from the joint committee before the Feb. 2 deadline for the bill to be heard in the current legislative session. .
Senate Bill 1552, titled “An Act to Create Alternatives for Community Emergency Services,” would establish a new grant program to help communities fund unarmed alternatives to law enforcement in response to calls to 911. Sabadosa said that, if approved, federal pandemic relief money sent to the state through the CARES Act would fund the initial design of the program and 80% of grants for first three years.
Sabadosa, the bill’s main sponsor in the House, and a group called the ACES Act Coalition — representatives from two dozen nonprofits across the state — joined a virtual meeting Monday to answer questions from the public and provide an update on the progress of the bill.
“Even before I was elected (in 2018) it was something I was thinking about,” Sabadosa said, recalling one time she saw a young child having “a seizure” in the parking lot at Northampton. YMCAs; the child’s caregivers, she said, called the police.
“It really struck me that…the best solution we had in our community to a situation that the caregivers couldn’t control was to call in the armed police,” she said. The police “aren’t the people to call when your child is collapsing, or at least they shouldn’t be.”
The grant program would be managed by a board made up of representatives from specific nonprofit organizations, as well as the secretary of the Department of Mental Health. Nonprofit organizations include the Greater Boston Association of Black Social Workers, the Massachusetts Peer Support Network, and the Western Massachusetts Learning Community.
One board member “shall be a consumer of the services of the Massachusetts Office of Addiction and Recovery,” the bill’s text says, while another “shall be a consumer of the services of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute,” who works to support victims of crime and trauma and their families.
Last year, the town of Northampton created the Department of Community Care, a peer-led team of unarmed responders who will deal with certain non-violent incidents such as calls from suspicious people, mental health crises and requests of social services. In its March 2021 report, the citizen-led Police Review Commission listed the creation of the new department as its first recommendation.
Former Mayor David Narkewicz and the city council earmarked $423,955 for the department, while Comerford secured an additional $150,000 in a state budget appropriation. Implementation Director Sean Donovan was hired in November to launch department operations at the start of fiscal year 2023, which is July 2022.
Barbara Atim Okeny, a licensed mental health professional and member of Diverse People United, said she is a black woman from an immigrant family and many people from these communities are reluctant to call the police for whatever reason. whether it be.
“I would like to be clear that the police have become the first line of defense in mental health crises,” Okeny said. “This bill will help end the criminalization of mental health, addiction and homelessness.
Voluntary ACES Act competitive grants could be used “to develop local systems to protect the mental and physical well-being of residents, prevent violence, defuse volatile situations, ensure access to social services, and reduce reliance on force by the government”. reads the invoice text.
Situations that would warrant an alternative to the police include “emergency and non-emergency situations that do not require the presence of law enforcement personnel or, where appropriate, the person requesting assistance requests a response from an alternative to law enforcement,” reads the bill.
State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate and a gubernatorial candidate, said 240 million calls are made to 911 each year in the United States, and the most of them are not related to serious crimes or danger. The national 911 program reported that nearly 3.5 million calls were made in Massachusetts in 2019.
“Officers are supposed to resolve noise complaints, reverse overdoses, discipline school children” and deal with behavioral crises, but they are not trained to respond to mental health or substance abuse crises, Chang-Diaz said.
Darrell Murkison, a community activist with the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition and former president of the North Shore chapter of the NAACP, said there is a racial disparity in police use of force, even in Massachusetts.
“Black and Brown overpolicing is happening in Massachusetts, and it is happening right now. … We live with this reality every day, and that’s why we’re afraid to call the police for help, even when we need it,” Murkison said.
Murkison listed the names of people of color who have been beaten or killed by Lynn police in recent decades, including Victor White. Former Lynn police officer Matthew Coppinger is currently on probation for repeatedly punching White, a black man, inside a holding cell for refusing to remove his mask at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murkison also raised the case of Denis Reynoso, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who was shot and killed in his home in September 2013. Reynoso was in the midst of a health crisis mental when he took control of an officer’s gun and fired two shots into his head, missing each time as the officer fought him.
Officer Joshua Hilton warned Reynoso five times that he would be shot, then opened fire on him. Reynoso later died in hospital. The Essex District Attorney’s Office determined the shooting was justified and the three officers were later awarded the state’s highest law enforcement honor, the Trooper George L. Hanna Memorial Awards for Bravery .
“For decades, unarmed black and brown people have been brutalized and killed by police in Lynn” and other Essex County departments, Murkison said. “Put simply, I know Lynn…and I know without a doubt that Lynn needs an unarmed response team.”
Last summer, Lynn city officials approved $500,000 for an unarmed pilot program called the All Lynn Emergency Response Team, or ALERT.
Brian Steele can be contacted at [email protected]