Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BRATTLEBORO — Updates to the local police department’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy are being celebrated by Migrant Justice, a statewide human rights organization founded and led by immigrant farmers.

“We’re very happy to have this change and have Brattleboro join these other jurisdictions that enacted these improvements,” said Will Lambek, staff member at Migrant Justice.

Migrant Justice created an alternative to a model policy used statewide. Local community members led the charge in Brattleboro in collaboration with and under the auspices of Migrant Justice, Lambek said.

One improvement ensures determinations by police are based on facts and not identity, the group said. The policy says “personal characteristics and/or immigration status shall not be used as a criteria for citation, arrest, or continued custody.”

Another improvement clarifies that investigations of unlawful entry should be limited and not be a priority for department, the group said. Another is said to support victims and witnesses by saying that information about them should not be shared with federal immigration authorities unless done so with individual’s consent.

Another is said to protect confidentiality and restrict information sharing with federal immigration authorities to serious criminal investigations.

Another is said to protect due process and principle of innocent until proven guilty.

“Unless ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or CBP [Customs and Border Protection] agents have a judicially-issued criminal warrant, or members have a legitimate law enforcement purpose exclusive of the enforcement of civil immigration laws, members shall not grant ICE or CBP agents access to individuals in [agency’s] custody,” the policy says.

The Attorney General’s Office approved the Brattleboro Police Department’s updated Fair and Impartial Policing Policy in early June.

“This policy does resemble those in other towns,” said Charity R. Clark, chief of staff at the Attorney General’s Office. “The AGO has found these to be in accordance with state law.”

Town Manager Peter Elwell described the updated version as not significantly changing the substance of the policy. He said the town was pleased to work with Migrant Justice representatives locally and statewide.

“Our existing policy was already, I would say, in sync philosophically with the model policy language,” he said. “We appreciated their collaboration on this. I thought both the process and the substance of the update were good steps forward for the community.”

Migrant Justice is coordinating efforts to modify local policies as part of its No Más Polimigra (No More Police and ICE collaboration) campaign. The group said strengthening the policies puts a clear barrier between local law enforcement and federal deportation agents, gives clear guidelines to officers, provides no loopholes for profiling or biased policing, upholds the principle of equal treatment before the law and enacts community values.

Other police departments which previously adopted changes to their policies are in Winooski, Burlington, Hartford, Norwich, Richmond, and South Burlington. The Addison County Sheriff’s Department also did.

Migrant Justice said the No Más Polimigra working group in Windham County formed at the end of 2019.

“Brattleboro’s Community Safety Review Team, which did a comprehensive assessment of the town’s safety profile, included the campaign’s provisions in their recommendations, and the town agreed to adopt those provisions,” Migrant Justice said, referring to a report released Jan. 1.

The working group, which Ellen Schwartz of Brattleboro said about 40 people have signed on to join, is now engaging with Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson and preparing to speak with other police departments in the county. The group also plans to monitor BPD’s training on the new policy.

Anderson said the first conversation he had with the group happened in 2019 when he first took office then his advisory group spent some time this year looking at proposed changes. He’s also part of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, which has a committee dedicated to the statewide FIPP standard that agencies base their policies off and can strengthen.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

A revised version of the statewide policy is now with the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee of the Vermont State Police.

“We’re going to look at it next Friday,” said Etan Nasreddin-Longo, co-director of the committee and equity advisor to the Vermont Department of Public Safety. “We’ll look at it, we’ll consider, we’ll talk it through. I’m sure there will be people who want these hard issues to have a really easy answer. I just don’t see it happening.”

Nasreddin-Longo anticipates the policy will go to the attorney general after his committee. In the meantime, Anderson said the sheriff’s office has paused its policy rewrite.

His plan is to dive back into the policy and make appropriate changes once the statewide one is finalized.

“I think that this is a policy that’s important to maintain consistent standards across the state,” Anderson said, viewing it in a similar manner to policy on the application of force.

Nasreddin-Longo said Vermont statute requires the policy to be looked at every legislative biennium and an ad-hoc group recently finished its review.

“They did that work with the advice and consent of Migrant Justice,” he said. “Nobody, advocates or council members, intended this to be a radical rewrite of the policy.”

Nasreddin-Longo said there have been moments where things slipped through because the policy was neither clear nor concise in places.

“You can’t hold people accountable if there’s no clarity and that was why people who might be on opposite sides of the fence of the debate were actually coming together because it’s an issue of enforcement, transparency and all of those things that those of us who do social justice work talk about,” he said.

Nasreddin-Longo said local municipal or state police organizations will need to be allowed to interact with ICE, otherwise that would be a violation of federal law and the attorney general could not approve something that is against the law.

“I find it strange that people want legal redress of racism but they don’t want to follow the law when it doesn’t suit them,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that, guys. You either follow the law or you don’t.”

With a lack of policing on the northern borders, Nasreddin-Longo worries about cutting ICE completely out of the picture.

“They’re nearby and god forbid there’s a domestic going on, what are you going to do?” he said. “Given that half of the murders in Vermont each year are aggravated domestic assault, what’s the plan?”

Departments risk losing grants money if they do something that makes the federal government uncomfortable, Nasreddin-Longo said.

“I just think it’s important people keep in mind these are not easy choices,” he said. “We live in a culture right now where everyone is anathematized to each other. You point a finger and say, ‘You’re evil.’ It feels good. It’s just not reality. I think things are a lot more gray than people want them to be. This is no different.”

Social justice often involves “this slow, very boring policy review,” Nasreddin-Longo said. “Nothing changes quickly.”

Migrant Justice sees the revised policy as an improvement on the current document, Lambek said, “but it leaves untouched the major loopholes that are in place.”

“So what Brattleboro has done remains very important because even when the new model policy is released, there will still be a need for communities to take action to go above and beyond the protections in the statewide policy,” he said.