BRATTLEBORO — Six months into committing to the recommendations in a community safety review report, an update from Town Manager Peter Elwell showed progress is being made and discussion made clear that more is on the way.
“It’s an interesting opportunity for us to see the next phase, you know, having moved from the community safety review process and the accepting of these goals and objectives, and now actually seeing the rubber hit the road on these things,” Select Board Vice Chairman Ian Goodnow said during the special Select Board meeting held last Tuesday via Zoom with an in-person option at the Municipal Center. He described being eager to get involved in policy and budgetary issues raised in the report.
Select Board member Daniel Quipp said the board can consider investments in mutual aid support networks, BIPOC-run programs, local organizations providing voluntary support and restorative justice practices.
“That is the space in this document where we have some power and we’ll have some say, and there is a lot to do in terms of building alternatives to policing and policing-like responses,” he said. “So I’m here for it and I don’t expect us to solve it all before now and the calendar year or even the end of this next budget cycle but I would really like, when we’re in these budget discussions, to have as much information available around what some of these things could look like.”
Brattleboro began the process of forming the community safety review team about a year ago in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and efforts to defund police agencies after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Two facilitators were hired by the town to lead the process and nine committee members were paid to participate.
A report from the facilitators, Shea Witzberger and Emily Megas-Russell, came in on New Year’s Eve and included 41 recommendations the Select Board discussed during meetings. At the board’s March 2 meeting, the board approved Elwell’s recommendation that the town begin moving forward with work in the report.
First, town officials acknowledged systemic racism is real and committed to correcting systemic oppression. Elwell said he has seen a real commitment to that.
For example, town staff have reached out to populations that might have been overlooked in the past for input on a housing study and the creation of a request for proposals for a municipal website upgrade. Police are said to be taking a more patient approach to those experiencing homelessness. And town job applications no longer ask for specific credentials or years experience but call for applicants to explain why they would be a good fit, creating what Elwell called a larger and more diverse pool of candidates.
Brattleboro recently hired Vermont’s first Black female police chief, Norma Hardy. The hire is not part of the report’s recommendations but Hardy and other job applicants were informed about the project.
Elwell said with nearly 30 years of experience in law enforcement and high-ranking positions within the Port Authority Police Department, Hardy brings “great leadership skills” to the job. With the Port Authority, he said, Hardy interacted with different parts of the population including those who are most vulnerable.
“We’re finding that to be one aspect of value Norma brought that’s even greater than we expected,” Elwell said, thanking the chief for making many visits around the community since she started about a month ago.
Another accomplished item recommended in the report involved updating police policy to more strongly spell out a barrier between local law enforcement and federal deportation agents.
A recommendation to decouple police from mental health calls started to be explored by Brattleboro Fire Chief Len Howard and other service providers in the area in August, Elwell said. While it is not a peer or civilian support system as envisioned by the community safety review team, the crisis intervention team model would have police traveling with medical and mental health service providers but not getting out of a vehicle unless needed.
An update on the progress of that project and the report overall is expected in December, around the same time the police department is expected to get a new data system. The hope is to collect more data about racial disparities and where incidents are occurring, a goal of the community safety review team.
Town staff know there is a need for “more granular and readily analyzed” data, Elwell said. Vermont State Police is installing the same system now and BPD is anticipated to have its fully functional by Jan. 1, he said.
Elwell and Hardy have met with a retired police inspector from Scotland, who works with Brattleboro Common Sense on its SAFE (Safe Alternatives to Fatal Escalation) Policing Plan. The report recommends undertaking the proposal aimed at eliminating firearms from routine police patrols and most other calls.
The dialogue will continue but “we want to be beyond cautious” on how the UK model might be applied in a more violent country, Elwell said. He expects Hardy to ultimately make the call call on whether to adopt the proposal.
“The pilot plan is so modest, involving just an hour or so of each officer’s time without a weapon a week,” BCS Director Kurt Daims said. “That’s a very modest proposal and Brattleboro is a very safe place for that.”
Disarming officers will be “transformative for police-public relations,” Daims said. He later suggested at least moving forward with a less burdensome part of the proposal: having officers go to community events unarmed.
Elwell said by December, the Select Board will be working on refining a budget proposed by town staff and the report will inform the process. The hope is to have a new town manager by Dec. 1, in time for Elwell to have some overlap before he retires at the end of the year.
Community safety review team members and board members expressed a desire to hire someone as actively involved in the project as Elwell.
“We are looking for a likeminded person to continue this work,” said Select Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin.
Members of the community safety review team are calling for disbanding the town’s Citizen Police Communications Committee, which is charged with facilitating communication between residents and BPD. The CPCC looks at complaints, compliments or information involving police procedures.
“In a review of two years of committee meeting minutes, there was no evidence of any disagreement or challenge to the police department’s findings or responses to any complaint,” states the report. The process “may serve to slow down and drag out the complaint process, with complaints sometimes going several months or over a year before being resolved. In listening and systems review information, the CPCC does not claim or intend to do systemic police accountability work, assess trends in complaints, or do policy or practice review.”
Board member Tim Wessel and CPCC Vice Chairman Gary Stroud spoke of being in favor of revamping the committee.
The town also is being urged by community safety review team members to create an oversight process to hold local leaders accountable for continuing with work outlined in the report.
Hardy applauded the board and Elwell, saying that the report can be used to improve the community.
“We’ve been working very hard,” she said. “My first month has been lots of meetings and lots of discussion.”
Her plan is to continue to conduct community outreach.