BRATTLEBORO — Efforts to make the community a safer place are underway with listening sessions designed to help people come up with suggestions for local systemic change in how police interact with different groups in the community.
“The benefit of participating,” Shea Witzberger, one of two facilitators hired by the town to work with the new Community Safety Review Committee, said during a public forum held remotely last week, “is that this committee is going to make recommendations to the Select Board at the end of this calendar year about policing and community safety systems based not only on what you all are sharing but also a very in-depth review of the Brattleboro Police Department policies, procedures and statistics, and also an analysis of who does get called when something happens.”
Witzberger said a report is anticipated to include potential short-term changes such as budgetary or policy recommendations and ideas about what work needs to continue. The plan is to seek feedback from residents, local organizations and social services.
Lana Dever, one of the nine members of the committee appointed by the board for the review, said the grassroots project started with discussions at Select Board meetings. The review will involve looking at policing, Department of Children and Family and mental health interventions, and other safety-related issues. Community members spoke at the forum about incidents involving abuse or assault when arrested, hospitalized, in a relationship with a romantic partner and growing up with adopted parents.
Committee member Kaz DeWolfe, who is transgender, expressed concern about how police are not trained to be supportive to someone in a moment of psychiatric crisis.
Rebecca Lalanne of Vernon, director of Deaf Vermonters Advocacy Services, shared about difficulties with being deaf and the challenges presented when masks are being worn during the pandemic.
“Things are pretty isolated,” Lalanne said, speaking through an interpreter. “Our resources are limited now.”
Gary Stroud of Brattleboro said his multiracial daughter was dealing with racism as a student on a school bus.
“I wasn’t too thrilled about that,” he said.
Dever pointed out Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country.
“It is white supremacy by default, de-facto norm because Black and people of color make up such a small minority,” Dever said. “There’s this culture of nonbelonging.”
Dever came from Washington, D.C., where she said she wasn’t pulled over randomly like she has been in Brattleboro. She’s an African American.
Her hope is that the committee can help Black community members and people of color feel like they belong here. A local student who went by “Z” during the forum described feeling uncomfortable with having school resource officers at Brattleboro Union High School.
“It just feels like I’m walking into a prison,” the student said, adding that a social justice group at the school called Youth4Change is looking to no longer having the officers at the school.
The committee hasn’t talked yet about the school resource officers but will in the future, Dever said.
Shela Linton of Brattleboro spoke about what she sees as long stigmatized neighborhoods in town, where she was born and raised. Now, she’s a grandparent.
“When I lived on Clark Street,” she said, “I actually thought the police lived on my block because the cruiser just stayed there.”
Linton, who is Black and co-founded the Root Social Justice Center, said her brother had been ripped out of the family’s house by police at a young age during an incident involving mistaken identity that traumatized her. She described being racially harassed during school and by a neighbor in recent years.
Linton also expressed concerns about the complaint process within the Brattleboro Police Department, calling it ineffective and intimidating.
“There’s no checks or balances, just zero accountability,” she said.
Anna Mullany of Brattleboro said tents used by homeless individuals were taken by police.
“I was incredibly angry,” Mullany said, “because here you have police officers taking one of the only things these people maybe own for shelter.”
Committee member Annaliese Griffin noted the forum’s “amazing turnout.” At the time, 46 participants were logged on.
Dever said community members most affected by such systems are being asked to share their experiences.
Log-in information is available on brattleboro.org and facebook.com/Brattleborocommunitysafetyreview. Surveys and nonpublic meetings also are being offered. The facilitators can be contacted at CSRT@protonmail.com or 802-409-5003.