BRATTLEBORO — Steady progress is being made on implementing recommendations coming out of last year’s community safety review process.
“The most important single thing that has happened in this body of work during the past three months is the creation of the Community Safety Fund,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote in a recent memo ahead of Tuesday’s special Select Board meeting, where an update on the efforts will be discussed.
Elwell said using savings from unfilled police office positions, the Select Board approved setting aside $200,000 from the fiscal year 2022 operating budget to create the fund in October. The following month, he included in staff’s proposed FY23 operating budget an additional $100,000 as a transfer from the police department budget to the Community Safety Fund.
“Nine of the recommendations from the community safety review encourage the Town to provide tangible support for community-based initiatives that are intended to make the community safer by reducing the need for and amount of police intervention,” Elwell wrote. “The Community Safety Fund will enable the Select Board to provide funding assistance to such initiatives.”
The board’s process and criteria for making allocation decisions for the fund will be determined next year before any money is distributed, according to the memo.
Authored by two facilitators who worked alongside a committee and got input from the community, the report urges the town to freeze the police department’s training budget. The board agreed to the move last year, and Police Chief Norma Hardy and Elwell haven’t requested an increase for the item in the proposed FY23 budget.
Another recommendation encourages the police department to allow Project CARE or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement to be managed independently. Elwell said Hardy turned the funding allocation and administration of the program over to Turning Point of Windham County, a recovery center involved in the effort to steer individuals into treatment.
“The only BPD involvement in Project Care now and going forward is to refer potential clients for the program,” Elwell wrote.
Also suggested in the report is the elimination of a program that embeds a social worker paid by Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Vermont in the BPD. Hardy suspended the department’s involvement in the program for “the foreseeable future and will consider whether to eliminate it entirely or propose reactivating it in a different form,” the memo states.
Elwell said recommendations encourage the town to provide support for community-based initiatives intended to make the community safer by reducing the need for and amount of police intervention.
“Some such initiatives already exist and I am aware of individuals and organizations who are developing other such initiatives,” he wrote. “While I am not aware of the exact status of any such initiative and believe that updates on that work should come from the individuals and organizations who are doing that work, I am noting it in this update because of the important role such community generated initiatives will play in achieving our overall community safety goals.”
Elwell urged individuals and organizations to “continue to closely monitor and provide input on the Town’s related work, including most importantly the upcoming Select Board decision-making regarding the process and criteria for making allocations from the Community Safety Fund.”
Another aspect of the project involves making officers seem less threatening. Hardy is reducing the visible presence of firearms “when appropriate,” the memo states.
“She attends most community meetings and community events in plain clothes,” Elwell wrote. “She is implementing a less military looking uniform for officers to wear when they are in uniform at community events and she is considering when it might be appropriate for officers to attend some community events in plain clothes, as well.”
Hardy is credited in the memo with continuing to “emphasize de-escalation and the obligation of officers to use the minimum force necessary in each situation.” She’s planning to test a pilot project seen as an alternative to the use of tasers and way to reduce the amount of force needed to control dangerous situations.
Elwell said Hardy also will stay in contact with a retired police chief inspector from Scotland, who advises Brattleboro Common Sense and shared his perspective with town staff on unarmed patrols in the United Kingdom. BCS called for a pilot program where officers would be unarmed for part of their shift, which received support in the report.
Brattleboro officials are involved in talks with other partners in the region about changing protocols modeled after crisis intervention team programs implemented in other institutions, the memo states.
“The CIT model de-emphasizes the role of the police in such responses but does not entirely decouple police from them,” Elwell wrote. “Instead, interdisciplinary teams (often a mental health professional, an EMT or paramedic, and a police officer) report together to the scene and the police officer becomes involved only if the situation cannot be successfully addressed by the two unarmed health professionals.”
Elwell said Brattleboro Fire Chief Len Howard, Hardy and others “will have more to say on this topic in 2022.”
The memo and update Tuesday will be Elwell’s last on the project as town manager, as he’s set to retire the last day of this month and Yoshi Manale will take over. Manale “brings a wealth of municipal management experience and fresh perspective,” Elwell wrote, “but he will need some time to get to know Brattleboro and to work with the Select Board, Chief Hardy, and the community before he will be able to bring the full value of his leadership to these important issues.”
Manale will assist in determining how the Community Safety Fund will work, and deciding the appropriate number of authorized police officer positions in town.