BRATTLEBORO — Over the last six months, the town made noteworthy progress on items recommended in the community safety review report written by two facilitators who engaged with residents and staff at local organizations to identify areas of improvement.
In March, the Select Board approved actions suggested in the report and recommended by Town Manager Peter Elwell. In a memo, he said today’s special meeting at 6:15 p.m. will include an update on progress and potentially further consideration by the board with community participation.
“We will be listening to Peter’s presentation, understanding the many ways reform is underway and the work that remains, and the path forward for the Select Board, the town, the police department and all of us in Brattleboro,” said Select Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin.
The town, Elwell wrote, “is pursuing this body of work with an open mind, a curious spirit and a healthy respect for the need to maintain a deliberate pace and inclusivity.”
“A lot has begun,” he continued. “A few things have been ‘finished’ (although even those are subject to continuous reflection and possible adjustment as needs and circumstances change over time). On most matters it has been six months full of learning and preparing for action by gaining a better understanding of what might be possible and with whom the town might partner to turn particular possibilities into reality.”
At the March 2 board meeting, town officials acknowledged that systemic racism and other forms of harm exist in Brattleboro. They stated a commitment to “an ongoing process of reckoning with the harm caused by existing systems in Brattleboro and with our roles and actions within those systems. We further commit ourselves to approaching this work and future corrective actions with humility and reflection in collaboration with individuals and groups who have been negatively impacted by these systems.”
“We are trying to apply that commitment to all our town operations and its impact is being felt far beyond matters of community safety,” Elwell wrote. “It affects how we make decisions, whom we assign to different tasks, and how we engage with the community. It is present in our ongoing and growing work on equity and inclusion. It is evident in the discussions and decisions of the Select Board and the town staff’s management team.”
FOLLOWING THE RECOMMENDATIONSIn the last six months, the town has attempted to ensure populations often overlooked in community outreach efforts participated in the town’s housing study and creation of the request for proposals for the town website upgrade project. Elwell said both projects have included some form of compensation for participants.
Brattleboro is “consciously employing less police intervention with people experiencing homelessness than in the past,” Elwell wrote. “In some cases, this involves taking a more patient approach to occupancy in certain public spaces,” he said. “At other times, it involves employees other than police officers reaching out to offer support to people who are occupying public spaces. In all cases, it involves close communication with Groundworks Collaborative in an effort to ensure that our collective efforts are well coordinated.”
Groundworks’ focus is on housing and food insecurity issues in the community. The organization runs a shelter and food pantry in Brattleboro.
For town positions, Brattleboro is no longer using what Elwell described as “fixed requirements” such as educational degrees or a minimum number of years in a particular field. Instead, applicants are asked to demonstrate how they would be best qualified to fill the role, which Elwell said “opens each opportunity to a wider variety of people.”
“We also have worked with partners in the community to ensure that our job advertisements are reaching broader audiences, including through paid advertising on job boards that are primarily viewed by BIPOC, women, Latinx or LGBTQIA+ applicants,” he wrote. “The result has been consistently broader and deeper applicant pools and a more level playing field for people from diverse backgrounds to compete for employment opportunities on our team.”
In July, Brattleboro hired Vermont’s first Black female police chief Norma Hardy. While hiring a new police chief was not addressed in the community safety report, Elwell called it “one of the most important factors in the broader body of work we are doing around community safety in Brattleboro.”
Elwell said the report recommends decoupling police from some activities, reducing police involvement in others, and changing police policies and operations.
“Therefore, even just within the context of this body of work, the perspective and leadership of the police chief will have a significant impact upon the success of our implementation efforts,” he wrote. “More broadly, given that we will need a well-trained and well-led police department for the foreseeable future (even as we explore some paradigm shifting alternatives to relying on traditional police interventions), having a strong and experienced leader as police chief will be essential to maintaining effective operations at the Brattleboro Police Department.”
Elwell said the initial vetting of all applications for police chief included external representation from the BIPOC community and law enforcement experts. The interviewing process included a community panel representing BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and psychiatric survivor populations in town.
Hardy is “the only applicant who received positive comments from every reviewer,” Elwell wrote, adding that she brings nearly 30 years of experience to the job. “Equally important, she has brought her desire and ability to engage with people of all backgrounds and circumstances as she learns about what is happening in Brattleboro and explores ways in which we can all make it better. In just her first month on the job, Chief Hardy has exercised effective command of BPD operations while meeting with literally hundreds of people in a wide variety of settings.”
Elwell added, “In Chief Hardy, we have brought onto our team exactly what we sought: someone who can provide traditional law enforcement leadership in addressing criminal activity here and be a partner with the community in identifying and seizing opportunities to de-emphasize law enforcement in favor of civilian supports, where possible.”
Hardy said Elwell will make the initial presentation at the meeting, which she plans to join via Zoom. While the meeting is in person, the public is encouraged to attend through the teleconferencing software.