BRATTLEBORO — A report that looks at safety, danger and harm within policing and community safety systems urges action on a variety of measures.
“It would be a great disservice and cause further harm to those who so bravely and vulnerably shared their stories, many of which invoke deep pain, fear and trauma, for this review process not to materialize actual change,” Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger wrote in the 224-page document released Friday. “Our community eagerly awaits the opportunity to explore what is possible in our town, and to get to work making it happen in ways that honor and build on the legacy of this process.”
In September, Megas-Russell and Witzberger were hired by the town as facilitators to take on the effort after a request for proposals went out at a time when residents were calling to “defund the police” or scrutinize the department’s budget in the wake of protests related to the killing of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis. The Select Board then appointed a paid nine-member advisory committee for the project.
Now available on brattleboro.org, the final report will be discussed at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting. The document advocates for greater accountability by reforming the Brattleboro Police Department’s complaint system, acknowledging systemic racism, strengthening support networks or structures, and looking at how to help meet people’s basic needs. It also suggests committing to no more increases in police budgeting and reducing the size of the police for over time.
More than 200 community members and about 25 organizations weighed in, according to the report. Surveys, public forums and private listening sessions informed the process.
The facilitators described what they heard from different racial groups, the LGBTQIA+ community, employees of local organizations and individuals who have experience in systems related to addiction, homelessness, mental health and poverty. The report includes details about traumatic experiences of community members in local hospital settings and negative outcomes with the Vermont Department of Children and Families.
The facilitators also shared police department data, with ideas for changing policies and practices. For example, the report recommends “eliminating police response to the vast majority of mental health crises that do not involve deadly weapons or imminent risk of harm, following suit with other police departments across the country.”
Another suggestion involves freezing the department’s training budget to assess training needs.
“We also recommend that if and when the Department does move forward with [diversity, equity or inclusion] and/or implicit bias training, it engages local BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] and anti-racist facilitators and trainers for consultation on potential trainers and training opportunities that might be a good fit for the Department,” the report states. “We recommend that the Department consider a broader approach to reducing bias than simply offering training opportunities, which are unlikely to produce the desired results. Acknowledging and reckoning with the presence of racial bias is a good and necessary first step.”
The facilitators applauded the department for not having used firearms in the last two years but noted there had been a fatal police shooting of a person of color in Brattleboro in the last 10 years. Another strength they cited involves how the department looks at “non-complaint handcuffing” as a use of force, which they said is not the case in all police departments and demonstrates an acknowledgement that the activity constitutes force. They said in reviews, “there were a couple of examples of officers making sustained attempts to de-escalate and use minimum force necessary in situations that appeared to involve actual threat of safety to the officers or others.”
The report recommends eliminating the police social worker liaison program. Despite it being well-intentioned, the facilitators wrote, it is “not having the desired impact. The funding for this program [which does not come from the town] could be better utilized if decoupled from policing and coercive crisis interventions.”
The report suggests a deep review of Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement) and moving funding to another group outside of the police department for the program after professionals from local organizations expressed concern about its mission, data collection, conflicts of interest and harm. With help from Turning Point of Windham County and Groundworks Collaborative, officers steer individuals toward treatment for substance use.
The facilitators are calling for the department to “deeply analyze” racial disparities in traffic stops. They suggest reviewing all arrests and searches of drivers from 2014 to 2019, the period of a study by professors at University of Vermont and Cornell University that suggests Black drivers in Brattleboro are “overstopped” 31 to 60 percent more than white drivers. Black drivers are 4.8 times more likely to be arrested and nine times more likely to be searched than white drivers, and when Black drivers are searched they are 30 percent less likely to have contraband than white drivers, according to the study.
Brattleboro’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy currently “represents the state’s minimum standard,” the report states. The facilitators suggest strengthening the policy, noting that Migrant Justice and Community Asylum Seekers Project are looking to expand such policies in communities.
The report advocates for adopting Brattleboro Common Sense’s Sensible Alternatives to Fatal Escalation (SAFE) Policing Plan, a proposal aimed at eliminating firearms from routine police patrols and most other calls. The hope is to increase public safety by preventing “accidental and hasty use of firearms by police, and in order to increase the safety of police officers, who become pre-emptive targets by carrying lethal weapons,” according to the report.
Also mentioned in the report are efforts to stop having school resource officers. An SRO is “an armed, uniformed police officer, patrols the hallways of our local elementary, middle and high schools,” according to the report.
“This program is experiencing scrutiny alongside national calls to action for police accountability and reform,” the report states, adding that Vermont Legal Aid is calling for funds to be reallocated to restorative justice programs and mental health services in schools.
For challenges in the review process, the facilitators cited time restraints and COVID-19 restrictions. They thanked town officials for “stepping into courage in leadership.”
“Throughout our listening, we heard from many people who felt encouraged, hopeful, and supported by the Town and Selectboard’s decision to embark on this community safety review process,” they wrote. “We want to express our gratitude for and pride in our Brattleboro community and the leaders that are showing their commitment to listening, learning, growing and fostering the kind of transformational change that is being called for nationwide.”