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BRATTLEBORO — After nearly two hours of receiving feedback and answering questions at a forum, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he wants to "do better."

"I heard some really good ideas on how we can move forward," he told the crowd. "And I certainly look forward to starting that work and doing what I can as we can have some positive change within the department and within the community."

At one point, about 80 attendees were counted at the Brattleboro Common. They were spread out on the grass and wearing masks, keeping with public health guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The forum came a day after the Select Board adopted the fiscal year 2021 budget without making cuts to the police department or reallocating funds as requested by a large group of community members during a meeting held via videoconferencing software. Town Manager Peter Elwell said the board made a commitment to continue to look at policing issues with feedback from the public.

Wichie Artu of Brattleboro, a representative from the Root Social Justice Center's Black, Indigenous People of Color Caucus, said policing has a legacy of racism, as "it started by the escaped slaves being taken and being put back in the masters' hands as an unofficial police. And once abolition came, this police force was then officiated to control black people who were supposedly free."

Crime is used as a way to continue oppression, Artu said, recalling how the Black Panthers were deemed terrorists in the 1970s and a federal crime bill in the 1990s resulted in people of color being labelled "super predators."

"It still continues today," he said. "I look to my black brothers and sisters, and say, 'One, two, three, four — one of you will end up in jail.'"

Artu said friends have been harassed by Brattleboro police.

"Defunding the police, reallocating resources, is not dismantling the job of being able to bring security and trust to community," he said. "It's a fact that the word 'police' doesn't inspire trust with my friends and me. The word 'police' inspires fear."

Fitzgerald described how negative encounters with officers can affect someone's opinion of police for years to come. Having good leadership and high standards for officers are ways in which he said he tries to avoid issues.

"We have had openings in supervisory positions at Brattleboro Police Department that I did not fill for a year because I did not feel that we had the people qualified to fill that position," he said. "Now, did that send a message to the people who were eligible for promotion? You're damn right."

Sergeants and lieutenants on the department will randomly review footage from body and cruiser cameras then critique officers, Fitzgerald said. Officers are expected to spend an hour walking around downtown during their shift. They also are supposed to check in with local human service organizations.

Fitzgerald said excessive use-of-force reports need to be immediately addressed.

"That officer has two options: They train, they get reformed, they get on board or they get transitioned out of the department," he said. "Believe me when I say bad cops are despised by good cops."

Fitzgerald received some criticism for initially focusing on bad cops rather than systemic racism. That is missing the point of the national discussion, said Shea Witzo of Brattleboro, who spoke in favor of changing power balances via budgeting.

Witzo recalled working as a diversity and inclusion trainer for the local police department.

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"I cried and I cried afterwards — it was the worst day in my career of doing domestic and sexual violence support work," Witzo said, describing a disengaged and defensive audience.

Fitzgerald said a new committee is going to be formed to discuss the department's budget. He expects town leaders, representatives from organizations and community members to participate in the work.

Brattleboro already has the Citizens Police Communications Committee, which is appointed by the Select Board. Fitzgerald said he would like to see the group more involved in the future and expressed a willingness to discuss the potential creation of an independent oversight group.

Attendees raised concerns about the shooting deaths by police of Robert Woodward in 2001 and Michael Santiago in 2014, and how tasers were used by police against nonviolent protestors in 2007. Fitzgerald said more focus is now put on de-escalation tactics and communication skills.

Asked by Leo Schiff of Brattleboro about plans for "community repair," Fitzgerald said, "That's what we're doing now, OK? And I'm going to need your assistance, I'm going to need your help on how we move forward."

Citing local data submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sascha Bratton of Brattleboro said people of color are more than twice as likely to be pulled over by the local police department than white people, and people of color are eight times as likely to be searched during a stop. When unable to answer questions about whether certain officers are exhibiting racial biases in their stops, Fitzgerald called data gathering "not one of the stronger points" at the department.

"That discrepancy has been identified, it has been discussed," he said. "It is one of the areas we want to look at and go much, much deeper."

Hiring is another area where improvement is needed, Fitzgerald said, noting that ramped-up efforts to cast a wider net for finding more diverse job candidates only began about a year or a year-and-a-half ago. The department has received help in expanding those searches from the Community Equity Collaborative.

Fitzgerald said as mental health facilities across the United States closed, police agencies took on responsibilities they were not equipped to handle.

"That created some pretty tragic incidents we weren't properly trained in," he said. "We're getting better but nowhere near the individual who spent years and years studying the mental health crisis."

Fitzgerald acknowledged the need to rely on subject-matter experts and those with lived experience to inform the department's work. The department has a social worker on staff and collaborates with Health Care and Rehabilitation Services.

Police are advised to direct those who are panhandling or experiencing homelessness to Groundworks Collaborative. They steer individuals toward treatment for substance use with the help of recovery coaches, Turning Point and other organizations via Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement).

Responding to a concern about access to the forum especially during a pandemic, Fitzgerald said the town plans to hold virtual meetings or find ways to reach a wider audience in the future.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.