BRATTLEBORO — A new fund created for alternatives to traditional policing had no detractors at a Select Board meeting with debate about the need for other reforms, such as disarming police officers at public events or routine patrols and disbanding a committee handling complaints about police.
The Community Safety Fund came not as one of the 41 recommendations of a report issued Dec. 23 by two facilitators who worked alongside a committee last year, but as a proposal from Town Manager Peter Elwell, who sees it as a way to support initiatives the report has in mind.
Having money available will allow the board to seize opportunities without looking for funding, Elwell said.
“There are some recommendations that relate to initiatives that would be more preventative in nature, that would try to reduce the number of times anyone has to intervene in an unsafe situation,” Elwell said. “There are also recommendations that speak to how intervention may occur in ways that we rely on others and not police to be the ones who would address certain things.”
In October, the board approved allocating to the new fund $200,000 from savings from having a full roster of police officers. Town staff recommended putting another $100,000 in the fund in the proposed fiscal year 2023 budget being reviewed by the board ahead of annual Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in March.
Elwell said the police department has 18 officers and capacity for 27. With recruitment efforts underway, his hope is to have 21 or 22 officers in the next fiscal year. He encouraged the board to give Yoshi Manale, his successor who officially starts next month, and Police Chief Norma Hardy, who started about four-and-a-half months ago, some time before digging into the topic.
Aware of several initiatives being discussed in the community, Elwell he’s hopeful the work will lead to less incidents overall. He suggested the board start establishing criteria for the fund in April or later, after RTM occurs and the new town officials settle in.
One meeting participant described an encounter with police as harmful and another voiced concern after experiencing break-ins at home, highlighting the difficult balancing act for the new chief.
“My job is to work with all members of the community and that has become very hard for me because I have people who want my help, that ask for my help, that meet with me daily,” Hardy said. “For me to have to address those issues and then also try to address the issues of people who feel harmed, who feel fear of us, the police department, is a very thin line to walk. And I’ve been doing my best to walk that line, to give everyone their say.”
Hardy handed administration of Project CARE or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement over to Turning Point of Windham County. The report recommended having police step back from the outreach program intended to steer overdose victims into treatment.
Elwell said the annual $16,000 line item for the program will go to Turning Point and police will still assist when needed. Hardy called the plan “a good idea.”
“We have to understand addiction is not a crime,” said Hardy, who expects to have monthly meetings with Turning Point to see if the department can provide any resources. “We tried to take a step back in terms of the interaction and see if people feel more comfortable taking their services.”
Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point of Windham County, told the Reformer recovery coaches still go to overdose calls with officers but outreach will mostly be done by coaches.
Hardy indefinitely suspended a social worker liaison program paid for by Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Vermont. The report recommended eliminating the program because it was “not having the desired impact.”
“I still feel that having a social worker is a good idea,” Hardy said. “I just did not see the kind of result in the past that I would have liked to see with the program.”
Also, Hardy kept a proposed line item for police training at the same funding level for FY23. The report suggested freezing that budget until assessing training needs, a move approved by the Select Board in a 3-2 vote last year.
De-escalation is being emphasized in trainings and the department will be trying a new program that would train officers on ways to secure a person without using a taser, Elwell said.
“It involves discharge of basically a rope that disrupts a person in their movement and not in their physiology,” he said.
When it comes to trainings, Hardy said the department is “very open” to suggestions.
Elwell said the review process made town staff aware that the visibility of firearms on an officer can be disturbing for community members.
Town officials are exploring adopting a “crisis intervention team” in which officers would be partnered with an EMT and a mental health care worker. Elwell said the officer would approach “if the kinder, gentler intervention is not successful.”
Brattleboro’s police and fire departments are said to be talking about the prospect with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Groundworks Collaborative, HCRS and Rescue Inc.
Hardy has been attending functions in plain clothes and looking at less militarized uniforms for officers to wear at community events.
Kurt Daims of Brattleboro Common Sense, whose group’s proposal to have officers go unarmed for routine patrols and other calls was backed in the report, questioned the need for firearms at public meetings. Dick DeGray, former Select Board member, said he supports officers having their weapons with them because “violence can break out at any time and any place.”
Wanting to balance concerns, Hardy said she’s open to discussions on the subject.
Disbanding the Citizen Police Communications Committee, which addresses complaints about the police department, is another recommendation of the report. The committee is seen by the authors as not providing enough accountability.
Elwell said the Select Board can disband the committee at any time but he would worry about leaving a void without having a new process in place. He suggested getting advice from Hardy, Manale and the community at future meetings.
Committee Vice Chairman Gary Stroud said he invited anyone to attend a meeting “to get a better idea of what we do rather than just [look at] the statistics, because sometimes you can get a better perspective of what it entails.” He also spoke in favor of keeping officers armed in case a tragic incident occurs.
“We don’t just throw things away,” he said. “We have to think of ways to improve it.”
Board member Daniel Quipp said he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about disbanding the committee and disarming officers. Instead, he favors discussion fleshing out of alternatives to policing.
Board member Tim Wessel urged the board to “let go of the weakest ideas” of the report, which he views as disarming police and freezing the training budget. He called himself “a big fan” of looking into forming a crisis intervention team.
“I’ve been reading about how it’s been working in other communities,” he said.
Board Vice Chairman Ian Goodnow said he believes involving the community in the process from the beginning will lead to successful initiatives getting funded for alternatives to policing.
“I think what we have heard tonight is the continuation of the logical enrollment of appropriate measures and I’m happy to continue with this process,” Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin said. “I also think that we need to recognize that this spirit of change and this awareness of community safety is imbued in everything that town staff and Select Board does. It’s more than a Select Board goal. It’s a far-reaching thing we do as a town government.”
Reckoning with the harm of policing is another big aspect of the work “so I want to invite that back in,” said Emily Megas-Russell, report co-author and co-facilitator. She also urged the board to use the fund in “really creative and quite radical” ways.