Breaking down barriers: Brattleboro forum looks at community policing

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BRATTLEBORO >> Spurred on by the deaths of black men by police forces throughout the country in recent years and the ambush of police officers in Texas and Louisiana, local community members are looking at improving race relations.

"It really does start with yourself. You can come here and listen to every single thing everyone has to say but if you take absolutely nothing from it, you won't pass it to anybody else," Isiaha Greene said at a forum on community policing, Wednesday evening at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden. "I'm 19 years old. I'm a young black male. I don't fear the cops or anything. But I have a little brother back there. I kind of fear for his life when it comes to police."

The forum was organized after a conversation between community organizer Patrina Lingard and Jose Moldando, who served on the New York City Police Department before coming to Vermont and becoming an intern in the office of the Windham County State's Attorneys.

"I was having a hard time understanding what was going on in the country," said Lingard, forum moderator.

She asked the panelists and forum attendees what could be done to break down the barriers between groups within the community.

Conversations need to happen "to see what we can do to help one another," said Moldando, who described a disconnect between officers commuting to East New York from Long Island. Having witnessed "a lot of shootings" and plenty of crime, he is now attending Vermont Law School. He said he is "looking forward to making a difference in that capacity."

Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald returned to town after serving in the Marine Corps for just over 20 years.

"I couldn't think of a better place to go home and bring my family," he said before adding that "What we're seeing in the national news and the media does affect us. We need to have this conversation because knowledge is power."

Sheila Linton is one of the founders of the Root Social Justice Center and a leader of the Blacks Lives Matter Vermont movement. She called her experiences with police "mostly negative" but said she wanted to be part of the solution.

Fitzgerald explained that his department has "a very large area" to patrol, 32 square miles, and not every neighborhood could be assigned an officer.

"We have to prioritize," he said. "When I first started, we didn't do a lot of the quality of life issues we do."

Sometimes, an officer can be waiting with a person for hours or a couple days for a hospital bed to open up. This is necessary because the person is not too safe to others, Fitzgerald said.

The department has a mental health worker whose salary is paid for by Health Care & Rehabilitation Services to assist with certain situations and provide early intervention in others.

"It's a statewide problem," said Vermont State Police Sgt. Andy Todd.

Dan Davis, former state's attorney and state trooper who runs his own legal practice now, received a round of applause from the crowd after speaking to his preference for treatment over imprisonment in some cases.

"It is a crime the way that the state of Vermont treats people with mental health issues," he said.

A cultural change rather than new policing tactics is needed, according to Fitzgerald. He said he has encouraged his officers to go into neighborhoods and "hold functions that are non-adversarial." Officers might be asked to walk around downtown or shoot hoops with kids.

"In the past, you only went into certain areas when arresting certain people," he said. "You can't arrest yourself out of the problem. You have to find the root of the problem."

Ken Williams, interim dean at SIT Graduate Institute, wondered how biases factor into police interactions. Originally from the Caribbean, he admitted he has looked down on black people born in the United States.

Officers, Fitzgerald said, "have a lot of discretion when they issue a ticket or not" and an unconscious bias may be present. New data on race available through the department is looked at as a way to address the bias and root it out.

"It stares you right in the face," Fitzgerald said of the data.

The Reformer submitted a request for public information early Thursday afternoon.

An implicit bias exists for police officers, Todd said. State police data from 2010 to 2015 indicated results that "were not what we wanted to see," he added.

State police out of the Brattleboro barracks issued citations to 40.7 percent of the 18,503 white people stopped during the study period and troopers from the Rockingham barracks cited 30 percent of the 21,401 white people stopped. The Brattleboro barracks cited 41.7 percent of the 1,460 non-white drivers stopped and the Rockingham barracks cited 37.8 percent of the 1,319 non-white drivers stopped.

Altogether, the state police cited 37.2 percent of the 265,899 white people stopped and 44.4 percent of the 13,061 non-whites stopped. Brattleboro had the lowest disparity between the stops of white and non-white people.

Other areas saw much higher figures for stops involving non-white people: Williston cited 34.3 percent of the 23,568 white people stopped and 44.7 percent of the 13,061 non-whites, Middlesex cited 44.8 percent of the 26,642 whites stopped and 55.9 percent of the 1,647 non-whites, Bradford issued citations for 45.7 percent of the 20,013 whites stopped and 61.8 percent of the 753 nonwhites, and Royaltan cited 25.9 percent of the 24,159 whites stopped and 36.7 percent of the 1,596 nonwhites.

According to the study, 5.1 percent of black drivers were searched during stops by the state police. Four percent of Hispanic or Latino drivers, 3.9 percent of native Americans and 0.8 percent of Asians were searched. For whites, the figure was 1.1 percent.

In this department, the Brattleboro barracks had the highest disparity. Out of the 18,503 white drivers stopped, 1.5 percent were searched. Of the 1,385 non-whites stopped, 6.3 percent were searched.

Rockingham was a close second in the highest disparity. Out of 21,401 white drivers stopped, 1.4 percent were searched. And 5.4 percent of the 1,317 non-white drivers stopped were searched.

Davis said both police agencies were "making major strides" in fighting racism.

"I think data collection is key," said Donna Macomber, an advocate at the Women's Freedom Center. "I think partly why we're here (at the forum) is the lethality is undeniable, like the lethality of what happens when people in positions of power are not able to move beyond bias and assess the situation accurately. I think what we have never gotten to — not in this community, but anywhere in this country — is how do we really undo racism?"

White people need to stand up with colored people and "make it seem like it was not just another incident that happened," said Williams.

"We need to begin to engage and understand people's pain," he said.

Williams said people do not see that they are acting in ways that can hurt other people. Examining perceptions and behavior, he added, is important.

Linton also encouraged white people to reach out to community members of color.

"Talk to them about what's going on. Talk to them about their experiences. And acknowledge, that not all people of color are going to have the same experiences," she said. "We live a white supremacist culture. That's where we need to start. Those who identify as being white, you have to learn how to understand your own white privilege and how that plays out."

"We live in a racist society that's against the poor," said Mikaela Simms, a Brattleboro resident who works for Spark Teacher Education Institute.

"In my opinion, we're teaching our kids to be racists. If you want to stop racism, stop teaching your kids to be racists," Orlando Alverez, investigator for the Department of Children and Families, said and was met with loud applause. "The race system started when the white settlers arrived on this continent and did what they did to the Native Americans. You're looking at 500 years of history that, in my opinion, this country has never fully discussed."

When starting his law enforcement career, he was given several tools: a radio, handcuffs and a gun. Each one represents a different way of handling a situation.

"If you can't talk your way out of a situation as a police officer, expect to fight. They taught me that if you're going to pull your firearm and discharge it that it's only because your life was in danger or somebody else's life was in danger. There are some times you use it. Other times, you use your wits or hands," Alverez said. "When I started I had an officer tell me, when you interact with people on the streets, remember that person's relatives and friends are going to be a jury when you're on trial. The second one is, when you're patrolling somebody's neighborhood, look around at the homes and recognize that the people who live in those homes are taxpaying citizens regardless of what they look like. They're paying you to protect their neighborhood."

Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica invited forum attendees to keep the conversation going next Wednesday night at the library's meeting room.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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