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  • Stephanie Boyd

Williamstown CARES is here!

On Monday, October 16, 2023, Kerry Nicoll, PhD, presented to the Select Board the final report of the CARES (Community Assessment Research) project. This project started in late 2020, under the direction of the then Town Manager, Jason Hoch. The goal of the project was to provide recommendations to the Town administration regarding policies and practices related to safety and well-being.


You can access the full report here. I've copied the Executive Summary below (pages 2 and 3 of the CARES report.)


I recommend that you read the full report if you have time. It is interesting and engrossing and important. It may inspire you to become more engaged with your community, be more understanding of your neighbors, or develop a deeper appreciate for your community.


I'm pondering the role of the Select Board and Town Administration. I think one reason that we live in a small town is the deep sense of community and belonging it can offer. This report has helped me develop a deeper understanding of what that means and I've come to realize that that sense of wellbeing doesn't come easily to all of us, and is much more complicated in the complex world we all live in.


I like the idea of a committee or task force that would consider the recommendations and dig deeper into how we might find ways for continuous improvement in our town government and law enforcement. Some of the comments in the report echo what we've heard in outreach sessions for the comprehensive plan - the need for a community center, the value we place on the arts and our natural environment, the desire for better methods of communication.


We've got work to do.



 

CARES REPORT EXECUTIVE SUMMARY


1.1 Overview of the CARES Project


The Williamstown CARES (Community Assessment Research) Project was initiated in late 2020 by the Williamstown Town Manager. Its purpose was to develop a thorough understanding of perceptions of community safety and wellbeing in the Town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, in order to provide recommendations to the Town for aligning policies and practices with community needs. While the project developed in response to national and local discussions on the scope and nature of policing, it focused broadly on topics of safety and wellbeing - rather than narrowly on policing - to establish a deeper understanding of how safety, wellbeing, policing, and other services intersect in Williamstown.


Using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach and interpretive research methodology, the project sought answers to the following questions:

1. How do community members define and experience safety and wellbeing in Williamstown? 2. How do members of the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) perceive their role in providing for safety and wellbeing in the community? 3. How do current policies and practices of the Town of Williamstown - including the Williamstown Police Department - conceptualize and shape safety and wellbeing in the community, and how do these align with resident and WPD perceptions? Between June 2021 and September 2022, trained social workers conducted in-depth interviews with 163 community residents and five members of the WPD.


1.2 Key Findings


• Interviewees think of safety in three major ways:

  • Physical safety, including safety from crime and other physical harm;

  • Emotional/social safety, including safety from negative judgement or shame AND safety from the psychological trauma experienced by historically marginalized populations;

  • And financial safety, which comes with economic stability.

• Interviewees perceive themselves to be safe or unsafe in Williamstown based on:

  • Comparisons to other communities (locally, nationally, and internationally);

  • Feelings of connection, belonging, and trust (or the lack of these);

  • And perceptions of and experiences with policing (locally and as a broader system).

• Interviewees think of wellbeing in two major ways:

  • The ability to meet tangible human needs, such as health, housing, and food security;

  • And the less tangible sense of community and belonging.

• Interviewees describe the following factors as supporting their wellbeing in Williamstown:

  • Community events and opportunities to connect with others;

  • The area’s natural beauty and access to recreation;

  • Access to the arts in Williamstown and the surrounding region;

  • The quality of local schools and education;

  • And resources provided by the town’s largest employer: Williams College.

• Interviewees describe the following factors as detracting from their wellbeing in Williamstown:

  • A sense of insularity;

  • A lack of intentional community-building;

  • The so-called “town-gown” divide;

  • A lack of healthcare resources;

  • And the existence of racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination and bigotry.

• Interviewees place great value on community members’ collective responsibility for safety and wellbeing, with recognition that town government has a special role to play representing the community’s interests.


• Interviewees view the current role of the WPD in varying ways, including:

  • Law enforcement, with a focus on traffic safety; o Protection from harm, especially related to crime and violence;

  • Default first responders to crime/violence and to problems community members do not feel equipped to handle on their own;

  • Meeting the safety and wellbeing needs of some, but not all, community members;

  • And agents of social control, often through intimidation.

• Interviewees express a desire for the role of the WPD to be:

  • Responding to crime (but not necessarily other safety and wellbeing needs);

  • Community-oriented and more focused on relationships than enforcement;

  • Community-directed and accountable, with an emphasis on partnering with the community;

  • And smaller with more partner organizations.

• Interviewees are interested in exploring alternative systems for meeting safety and wellbeing needs.


1.3 Major Recommendations


• Focus on communication.

  • Work with government-community communications specialists to develop a comprehensive and dynamic communication network. The emphasis should be on identifying communications needs before identifying technology solutions.

  • Provide inclusive facilitation training for town leaders to improve and increase communication in public meetings.

• Commit to intentional community-building.

  • Establish a community center – a physical space where community members can gather and interact across generations, professions, neighborhoods, and other demographic differences.

  • Create a mechanism for welcoming new community members – owners and renters alike. o Provide opportunities for education and dialogue across difference. Building relationships and learning from one another are critical steps toward ending discrimination in the local community. • Develop support systems for individual and collective wellbeing.

  • Examine and invest in new ways to enhance access to health care, affordable housing, and other basic services. This should include working with local and regional partners.

  • Create a detailed account of mental health and wellbeing calls received by the WPD. o Pilot a parallel response program for mental health and wellbeing calls, following the community responder model.

• Create a community safety review committee to review the role of policing in Williamstown. This should be an exploratory committee charged with examining evidence-based possibilities for innovation that align with residents’ desires for safety and wellbeing. The committee’s work is intended as a review of the system and structure of policing in Williamstown, not as a review of individual members of the WPD.


 

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