CRESS: Amherst’s alternative to police

Community-focused Amherst group aims to help those in need


Ethan Brayall-Brown/ Daily Collegian (2023)

By Ethan Brayall-Brown, Assistant Video Editor

Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) is a new Amherst department that was made to provide community services to incidents that don’t involve violence or a serious crime. According to their government page, “It will create a civilian, unarmed alternative to calls that might otherwise require a response from the Police Department.”

While CRESS officially began service Sept. 6, 2022, it took months of finding the right people for the job and having them go through special training to be ready for the streets after the town approved the creation of CRESS on Dec. 21, 2021.

CRESS Director Earl Miller said that it started with finding a team who “really want to do this work” and have prior experience with behavior health or roots in Amherst.

Kenneth Meikle, or “Q,” is a long time Amherst resident and used to work for the Department of Mental Health, where he worked with people with disabilities. He was asked to join the team at Earl Miller’s welcoming party back in May and he felt like if he joined the team, he would be able to set a good example for minorities and be able to do community mental health work.

“I know a lot of kids and people out here that respect me and I felt like it would put me in a position to make a difference and kind of help people. You know, spread that love that everybody needs today — that positive energy is what we need,” Meikle said.

Vanessa Phillips, another CRESS employee and Amherst resident, was originally supposed to be an Amherst emergency dispatcher, but before committing to that job she learned about CRESS and really resonated in its values.

“I think [what interested me was the] equalness or fairness. For me, growing up in Amherst [I was] trying to navigate the system [as a] young mom … so there were a lot of things that I wasn’t cool as a woman of color. So I just thought that CRESS would be a new start for me, like helping people out. People that were in my shoes at one point and like to give people voices and make them feel seen and heard.”

After finding and hiring Meikle, Phillips and the rest of the team, the new responders then went through a rigorous nine week training program. There would be days of in-class training and days of going out into the community and role playing mock situations to see how the team could respond and handle the situation. These training sessions came from the police department, the fire department and even people from the colleges in town so that team members could get an understanding of all of Amherst, not just the inner town.

The team was trained in CPR, mental health and motivational interviewing, which is asking open-ended questions so a person can help themselves figure out their own problems. A core value of CRESS is making sure their presence is consensual. If the people that they are trying to help don’t want them to be there, they don’t force themselves on the situation.

When they were ready for the field and got to work, Director Miller said the most issues that they respond to were wellness checks for seniors.

“We have about 6,000 seniors in town … from a variety of places in the world as diverse as any group of folks you’ll meet. The kind of profound loneliness those folks and I think everyone is experiencing [stem from the pandemic and] people are still very much experiencing the effects of the pandemic to this day,” Miller said.

In those scenarios, they would go in and check on seniors and have a conversation about life, check in on their overall wellbeing or even deliver food to them. In addition, they make sure that those seniors know that there is always someone to talk to in the CRESS office or the senior center that is right below the CRESS office in the Bangs Community Center.

The other big issue that they face is homelessness. They try to help those people access shelters for them to stay in, but Miller says that they often have to speak with them 10 times before they actually go to one. Miller says that this happens because those people “experienced substantial trauma” and are wary of others so “engaging with them takes time.”

Meikle goes on walks throughout the town almost every day to look for the homeless or people in need. If he finds anyone, he invites them to the office or to get something to eat.

CRESS also works with the Trauma-Informed Hampshire County group on a new childhood trauma initiative. Both groups are researching childhood trauma to help children and adults who are affected by those experiences. Miller said that CRESS’ goal is that they will soon be able to do training in the town to teach people about childhood trauma.

Another new program Cress is working on is how to help the veteran community in Amherst. This is being led by Eugene Herman, a Vietnam war veteran. He is trying to help veterans help themselves. While some try to understand how to help veterans, Herman says that they would prefer to help themselves; they just need the tools to do it and a good community around them for support.

Miller also encourages the public to “judge us by what we do, not what we say,” and for people to not trust them in the beginning. Only once they have seen for themselves what CRESS is, by either going down to their office and speaking to the team or seeing what they do through the town, should a resident trust them.

Ethan Brayall-Brown can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ebrayall99.