Brattleboro Police Department patrol vehicle

Brattleboro Police Department patrol vehicle.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

BRATTLEBORO — The Select Board voted 3-2 to level fund police training for the fiscal year 2022 budget, as recommended by a recent report about improving community safety, rather than going with a 48 percent increase as proposed by the interim police chief.

Commissioned by the town and released Jan. 1, the 224-page report says needs should be assessed before investing further in training and community members with lived experience should be consulted. At the board meeting held remotely Tuesday, which at one point had 88 participants, interim Police Chief Mark Carignan said he wanted extra funds for training on diversity, equity, inclusion and de-escalation, but also to hire local subject matter experts to advise in making the sessions more effective.

His proposal involved increasing the training budget from $27,000 from the current fiscal year to $40,000 in the next fiscal year. Carignan said he agreed with the report in saying police do not necessarily know what training will be best for them and that subject matter experts with lived experience would know better.

Over the years, the Brattleboro Police Department has received implicit bias training, which Carignan called “an important first step.” He advocated for multiple sessions on the subject for the next fiscal year and expanded training on de-escalation techniques.

Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin encouraged the idea of having community members and the department collaborate on defining future training.

“It’s kind of like the restorative justice model,” she said. “I don’t want this report or the people who say ‘no training’ to give up on the police department. I think the police department can learn and change, and I think the community can come together and make that change happen.”

McLoughlin voted against level funding the training, saying that she did not want to be punitive to the department but instead wanted a paid discussion between community members and police to address training. The board is currently putting together a fiscal year 2022 budget to present at annual Representative Town Meeting in March.

HB Lozito, executive director of Out in the Open, said bias training for BPD has not had its intended effect based on a study showing racial disparities in traffic stops from 2014 to 2019. With such training being used for at least the last 14 years, Lozito suggested that “it’s time to try something else.”

The number of disparities can be interpreted in a variety of ways, Carignan said, “but regardless, the numbers are the numbers. We don’t know exactly what the most effective training in this area is and because of that I’m asking for additional funds to then go out to local people who do know or might be able to advise us and pay them, give them money, so they can design training for us that might be more effective.”

Shea Witzberger, one of the two facilitators hired by the town to undertake the community safety review process, said recommendations in the report do not ask for “any wholesale defunding of the police” even though marginalized people and organizations which provide them support wanted that.

“Because we didn’t think you would go for that. It didn’t seem feasible,” Witzberger said, suggesting that money proposed for additional training could go into building other support structures, another recommendation in the report.

Emily Megas-Russell, co-facilitator, said a key finding of the report involved officers not being ready for the proposed training and it came from listening to the department.

Alex Fischer of Brattleboro described the $13,000 difference in funding as a small figure showing the community that the board is ready to attempt a different approach and “try something that is not the same thing that isn’t working” for at least one year.

Board Chairman Tim Wessel, who also voted against the motion, said the effects of training are not always measurable. He pointed to an incident on Putney Road in 2019 where police successfully de-escalated a situation involving a man reportedly jumping on vehicles, smashing a windshield and attacking officers.

“This is super complicated,” Quipp said. “On one hand, it is a litmus test about whether or not we take this report seriously. On the other hand, it’s a question of do we believe that people can develop, can grow?”

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Each officer is at a different point in their experience, Quipp said.

“They didn’t all just kind of pop up out of the ground,” he said. “You know, their context is all different. Their histories are different. Their levels of readiness, I’m sure, are different.”

Quipp said it is important to acknowledge skepticism on the benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion training because many people say it has not produced the desired outcomes. He called for the department to engage with the authors of the traffic stop study.

Board member Brandie Starr suggested Carignan can collaborate with community members affected by policing to determine next steps and thanked him for his openness to the conversation. She said she thinks it takes courage to accept the traffic stop study even if another interpretation is possible, and she wants officers to know she supports and appreciates them despite not funding the full request for training.

Wessel said he believed increased funding would be in the best interest of the community, as more training is better than none.

The board later began discussing how to approach other parts of the report before opting to get some help in navigating next steps. In an unanimous vote, the board “gratefully” accepted the report and directed town staff to provide additional information regarding the document’s recommendations to help the board “make decisions on town actions to move forward with this work.”

The report has about 40 recommendations, said Quipp, who brought a list of those he thought the board could immediately start deciding on. The board initially discussed decoupling police from welfare checks or mental health calls before board member Ian Goodnow asked Elwell for input on the matter.

Elwell said he has talked about implementation of the recommendations with Carignan and Assistant Town Manager Patrick Mooreland.

“We would like an opportunity to give that kind of advice that is required in this first item related to the entire report,” Elwell said, noting that the current board has until March 2 elections to make decisions on prioritizing recommendations. “You don’t have to wait months for that. In a few weeks, I think we can bring back something that is the start of something meaningful. I think everyone’s goal is to bring the work forward and there’s got to be some way to provide definition to the first steps of a large body of work.”

Elwell anticipates input from town staff will involve legal boundaries, logistics, and serving as conduit between the community’s desires and the board’s policymaking.

“This does not supplant our decision making in any way,” McLoughlin said, calling what will likely result in a memo an “organizing document” to work with.

Goodnow said he thinks getting the input is “a great idea” and will help bring about change. Witzberger also applauded the plan, describing it as “a step in the right direction.”

Wessel said he wanted to push for the “low hanging fruit” in an attempt to take some burden off town staff but if Elwell “is willing to commit staff to this larger task, it’s hard to say no.”

Starr made a statement acknowledging harm in the community and a desire to address systemic issues locally. Quipp said he concurs.