BRATTLEBORO — After spending several hours discussing the community safety report they commissioned, Select Board members stopped short of defining next steps. Town Manager Peter Elwell worried that trying to outline such actions at nearly 11 p.m. Tuesday would disrupt the process.
“My strong suggestion is take the progress tonight and be grateful for it,” he said at the remote board meeting that started at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Elwell recommended taking up actions at the upcoming board meeting on Tuesday and possibly starting with a list of suggested actions that board member Daniel Quipp highlighted. The board agreed, cutting off conversation until next week.
Quipp pointed to a section of the 224-page report saying that systemic racism, white supremacy and policing were named the biggest threats to many Black community members. He also noted the harm local residents described to facilitators via surveys and listening sessions involving mental health systems, poverty, homelessness and child protection services.
“I just want to let the community know that I support the report’s recommendations broadly and I would like to see us, the Select Board, give clear direction to the town manager and relevant town staff to begin work immediately to implement the recommendations,” he said.
Quipp supported suggested actions related to ending the practice of Brattleboro Police Department responding to welfare checks and mental health crises; analyzing racial disparities in traffic stop data; addressing gaps in the department’s data reporting; disbanding the Citizen Police Communications Committee (CPCC) and creating a more accountable complaint process for police; investing in new and existing programs that respondents say made them feel safer; and reviewing de-escalation techniques. Lana Dever, one of the nine members appointed to the Community Safety Review Committee, said Quipp’s comment provided validation to those most affected by existing systems.
The report shows “the status quo is not sufficient,” board member Ian Goodnow said, calling for structural changes by giving town staff clear direction on future policymaking. He also supported ways to decouple police from mental health calls and welfare checks.
Board member Brandie Starr said the board should look to improve public safety and address inequities.
“If that means taking bolder steps or doing things outside of the way it’s been done then so be it,” she said. “Because why else do we sit in six-hour meetings — for some of us, for four years — if not to do something at some point instead of just constantly finding ways to dig in and pinpoint little things, which then can easily become bigger things and then we do literally nothing because if we can’t solve it all then why would we do anything?”
Change only comes through communication and dialogue, said Select Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin.
“I know the police are open to change,” she said. “We must support this police department with increased training because I believe the police department is capable of change.”
A 48 percent increase for training over last year is currently in the budget proposed by town staff for the next fiscal year. But the report suggests freezing the department’s training budget until needs are assessed.
McLoughlin wants to see the department’s social worker involved in more calls, whereas the report recommends doing away with the police social worker liaison program. She supports having groups come to board meetings to discuss programs related to restorative justice and policing alternatives, and revamping the CPCC to improve accountability and getting input from experts on how to do so.
Board Chairman Tim Wessel said he sees a lot of consensus among the board but knows there will be some disagreement.
His “biggest disappointment” in the process was not getting a visual map of how safety systems work in the community, which had been in the original proposal presented by the two facilitators hired in September to lead the process. The facilitators described that aspect of the project becoming too complicated to accomplish in such a short time period after hearing from many members of the community and employees at local organizations.
“It sort of became an impossible task to do justice to because the experiences that people were having and then what on the surface level these systems or programs are maybe intending to do or supposed to do, there’s a real disparity there,” said Emily Megas-Russell, facilitator, adding that the report includes information on how people get their needs met within and out of systems.
Shea Witzberger, facilitator, suggested the map could have been completed if the facilitators reviewed policies and data of other organizations, as was done with the Brattleboro Police Department. She noted information about interventions between agencies or fields also is in the report.
Another concern raised by Wessel had to do with the board-appointed Community Safety Review Committee not having a chairperson or a way to consolidate opinion. He said he feels the process was driven by the facilitators and some of the recommendations were not “well considered” for Brattleboro.
The committee helped guide the work and ensure many viewpoints were taken into account, Witzberger said. Committee member Laura Stamas called the process “very transparent and collaborative.”
“From my personal experience, I’m the only person of color in that room,” Dever said. “I was paying attention to how the process was being held and I felt as if my voice was being heard. And if I didn’t, I can guarantee you would know about it.”
Having previously submitted a statement to the board raising issues, committee member Kelsey Rice said she feels the process was rushed and some of the recommendations were predetermined.
“I’m concerned it was over facilitated and it was done through a very specific lens, and for a reason,” she said. “It was to uplift the voices that needed to be heard.”
Stamas urged the board to freeze the training budget so harm felt in the community can be acknowledged first. That’s the only item needing to be addressed before the municipal budget is approved by the board to be warned for annual Representative Town Meeting in March, Wessel said.
“Relationships are the intervention,” Dever said, not training.
Kurt Daims, a director of Brattleboro Common Sense, offered assistance with a recommendation in the report to take up his group’s proposal to disarm officers for routine calls. Six officers from the United Kingdom with weaponless policing experience are willing to advise, he said.
Megas-Russell said the report recognizes institutions are causing more harm to the individuals they are responding to.
“The systems are built and they are hurting people and we have to build different systems,” she told the board, beginning to get visibly upset. “And you have to do it. And I’m sorry if it’s hurtful to address you by name but you are the ones who put yourself in this position. You volunteered as you want to remind us so many times. You volunteered for this.”