BRATTLEBORO — A brand new committee got started this week, outlining a basic plan for the big task of coming up with ways to improve public safety and accountability in the community.
"I think the content will get juicy," Shea Witzo, the facilitator hired by the town for the project, said at the Community Safety Review Committee meeting Tuesday held remotely, after thanking people for tuning in to hear about the process.
Her co-facilitator Emily Megas-Russell asked Town Manager Peter Elwell to let them know if they say something wrong or illegal as it pertains to Vermont's Open Meeting Law. The nine-member committee made introductions and delved into the details of the work during the approximately two-hour-and-fifteen-minute meeting.
The plan is to collect data and talk with community members, local organizations, Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, police officers and other first responders before compiling a report and recommendations. The report, due in late December, is expected to help guide municipal budgeting decisions for the next fiscal year.
"We hope to include a visual map of 'the ecosystem' of what these responses and resources look like," Witzo said, adding that they want to keep the process transparent but will be looking at ways to protect the identities of individuals who share stories or feedback and fear retribution.
Witzo recalled the project being initiated by a call from the community for defunding or reducing allocations for the local police department in June and how it would have been difficult to reach consensus on how to do so before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
The facilitators are using what they describe as an anti-racist and anti-oppression framework for the process. They might bring in other co-facilitators
on a limited basis if certain expertise is needed for parts of the project.
"We know a lot of people in movements for justice, liberation and change," Witzo said. "And our hope is in knowing all these people that we can bring a broad swath of the community in to give feedback about what their experiences of community safety have been, etc."
Nonprofits and social justice groups are anticipated to participate in the process. Megas-Russell is going to lead a systems review of the police department looking at policies, procedures, relationships and structures.
The town's Citizen Police Communications Committee also will be contacted. For more than a decade, the group has been meeting and discussing complaints about the department.
Weekly meetings are anticipated in October to organize and design information-gathering sessions to be held the following month.
A decision on setting up a schedule for meetings was not reached Tuesday, so committee members will be polled via email to determine the best times. Concerns were raised about meeting Tuesdays, a day many agreed would work for them, as the Select Board regularly meets the first and third Tuesday of every month, which could prevent some community participation.
Committee members will each receive a $750 stipend. Funds for language interpreters and child care also will be available to promote more participation from the community.
Witzo said the facilitators want survivors of violence to be able to speak to the committee without fear of their stories being harmful to children.
Megas-Russell stressed how the process will not include performance reviews of individual police officers, but is heavily focused on police because they are tasked with keeping the community safe and they are armed so they have the potential to hurt someone. She described the project being part of "a long-term question" many communities are now asking about being effective when it comes to the safety needs of their citizens.
"We can't do this alone, any of us," Witzo said, "so let's co-invent it."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.