BRATTLEBORO — The Community Safety Review Committee is starting to see the shape of recommendations being developed by facilitators to make the town feel more safe.
“We’re at a critical point in our process,” Emily Megas-Russell, one of the two facilitators hired by the town for the project that will result in a report due at the end of the month, said at the committee meeting held remotely Monday.
Responses from Town Manager Peter Elwell on questions posed at the last meeting were read to the committee on Monday. He said neither the Brattleboro Police Department nor the rest of town government plays any role in the school resource officer position — it is staffed by the Windham County Sheriff’s Office and overseen by the Windham Southeast School District, with no funding from the municipal budget.
Shea Witzberger, facilitator, noted there are issues that aren’t the Select Board’s responsibility so the upcoming report will need to be reasonable about the scope of changes. The board hired the facilitators for the project following protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at police hands in Minneapolis in May and local concerns about police funding.
The committee was curious about any money that BPD receives outside of the town budget.
“We have regular grant funding in relatively small amounts, including Governor’s Highway Safety Program grants for traffic enforcement and Justice Assistance Grants based on our crime statistics,” Elwell wrote. “We also receive occasional specialized grants, including COVID recovery this year, a large communications upgrade seven to eight years ago, and others.”
Traffic stop revenues are allocated to the town’s General Fund. Elwell said the money is not earmarked for the police department.
Overtime for police, he wrote, “is perennially over budget for the same reason. Our under expenditure of salaries and over expenditure of overtime usually nets to an overall savings, and that savings accrues to the General Fund balance and is not earmarked for BPD.”
A training line item on the police budget is proposed by town staff to increase by 48 percent from the last fiscal year. Elwell said the department intends to invest in sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion; cultural humility; and continued development of de-escalation skills.
Committee member Lana Dever suggested the money could be more useful elsewhere “because we’ve already seen across the country, sensitivity training and trainings like that, they don’t do a thing. It’s just window dressing.”
Committee member Kaz DeWolfe said as someone who has been involved in designing police training, “I’m not feeling good about that being an effective use of town money.”
“Those are really important points and I think it’s something we’ll talk more about,” Megas-Russell said. “Let’s talk more about that.”
If the trainings are going to happen anyway, HB Lozito of Brattleboro said recommendations from the review process could involve weighing in on which trainers are hired. Dever suggested the potential for selecting people based on their plans for follow-up and accountability after the sessions.
The department’s policy calls for a minimum of three officers on every shift, which is not a contractual obligation. Elwell said it is based on “call volume, call type, workload distribution, and safety.”
“Individual BPD officers have some of the highest call volume workloads in the state, in some cases several multiples over officers in other departments (including VSP),” he wrote, referring to Vermont State Police. “During times of extreme officer shortage, we have experimented with going down to two officers between the hours of 3 to 6 a.m. with poor results.”
At the postponed annual Representative Town Meeting held virtually in September and later in the year due to the coronavirus, reps approved a nonbinding motion recommending the human services budget increase from 1 to 2 percent of the General Fund budget. The committee learned that the Human Services Review Committee, which considers applications from organizations and suggests a figure for the Select Board to warn for the annual meeting, planned to propose fully funding all requests received this year.
Elwell said the recommendation totals $275,400, which is up by about $210,340 from last year. The figure represents about 1.4 percent of the budget.
Respondents to surveys launched by the facilitators applauded the review process. Witzberger said community members feel the town is taking issues seriously.
The biggest threats named by survey respondents included poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, opiates addiction response systems, systemic racism, white supremacy, lack of housing and police. Witzberger said concerns were raised about interventions from the Vermont Department of Children and Families, and some hospitalizations at the Brattleboro Retreat and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital were described as feeling like “torture.”
Respondents who are Black and people of color said they have been profiled by police and see some challenges with policing locally and throughout the world. Witzberger said many people feel police could go on certain calls without a firearm and some wanted police to receive better care for trauma.
Different ideas emerged on defunding police and/or funding alternatives. Witzberger said a list will be shared soon as identifying factors are being removed from documents being used to quantify data on community feelings on safety.
“These systems aren’t working for everybody,” she said.
Witzberger acknowledged there being some imprecision in the data-related group listening sessions. She said surveys for the community received at least 130 responses and surveys for people employed by local organizations had 59 responses.
“You’ve brought so much useful information forward that I think that is rightly the focus of your comments but I feel the need to add one thing,” said Franz Reichsman of Brattleboro, who described having an extensive background in research methodology. “Because you solicited this information from people and because there was no sampling procedure that was representative of the community as a whole, the one thing that you really can’t do is to say that this is some kind of a cross sectional picture of the whole entire community.”
It’s possible that recommendations in the report might call for further studies, Witzberger said.
“We were on the timeline of this weird year,” she said. “People are naming that the town reckoning with the harm in a deeper way is something that’s helpful. More reckoning, more understanding of these systems is going to be helpful.”
Megas-Russell said the process was “designed specifically to center the voices of those most impacted.”
Her research involved speaking with the author of a study from University of Vermont and Cornell University from 2014 to 2019 that found the Brattleboro Police Department stopped more people than the national average, with Black and Hispanic drivers being stopped at higher rates. She said Black drivers are arrested 4.8 times more than white drivers and are searched nine times more than white drivers but are 30 percent less likely than white drivers to have contraband when searched.
Megas-Russell reviewed BPD policies, procedures, overtime usage, complaints and responses in the last two years, and all Citizen Police Communications Committee (CPCC) meeting minutes for the last two years. She said the department only investigates bias in the department if there is a complaint from the community or a supervisor.
“There’s no tracking or documentation or observation or assessment,” she said.
She anticipates recommendations in the report being related to capturing data not currently being collected by the department.
The CPCC’s focus is on improving relations between community members and police based on complaints through dialogue, Megas-Russell said.
“It’s a very individualized focus, you know, scope,” she said. “They meet monthly for about 30 to 45 minutes so they don’t have a lot more capacity in their current structure to do much more. They do not identify that the CPCC is a place where any police accountability work is happening.”
The police responded to 10,626 incidents last year and 7,874 calls so far this year. Suspicious activity or circumstance accounts for about 15 to 16 percent of those incidents.
About 6 to 7 percent of the calls had to do with an “animal problem.”
“I’m definitely going to learn more about that,” Megas-Russell said.
The third most common incident is an “agency assist” in which the department is asked to help another group, accounting for about 5 to 6 percent of calls. Trespass violations made up about 5 percent of calls. And welfare checks and public speaking engagements each account for about 5 to 6 percent of calls.
Megas-Russell said in the last two years, Brattleboro police have not fired any guns. She plans to bring up more data on the department’s use of force at the next meeting happening via Zoom at 6 p.m. Monday. Login information can be found at brattleboro.org.