BRATTLEBORO — Culture shifts over the last few years in the Brattleboro Police Department were celebrated by the outgoing police chief as he also singled out areas needing improvement.
“Thank you for this opportunity in allowing us to discuss the police department and recognize that this meeting is running parallel to the good work the Community Safety Review Committee is doing,” Chief Michael Fitzgerald said at a special Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday to discuss policies and procedures within the department as budget season begins. “Hopefully we’re on the same sheet of music.”
The board wanted the discussion after concerns around the nation and community were raised followed by the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis in May. The town recently started the Community Safety Review Process in response by hiring two facilitators and appointing a nine-member committee to explore how to create a safer community for all citizens.
Emily Megas-Russell, one of the facilitators, said data from the department is showing how calls get responded to and an analysis will be provided as part of the project. A report with recommendations for the upcoming municipal budget is anticipated by the end next month. Shea Witzberger, the other facilitator, said information will be shared from listening sessions with citizens and staff from social service organizations.
Fitzgerald was named chief in 2014. Since then, he has sought to build more trust in the community.
“Over the years, many officers forget the why,” he said. “Why did you become a police officer?”
Principles were developed. They involve treating people with dignity and respect, giving people a voice during encounters, being neutral and transparent, and having trustworthy moments.
Fitzgerald also wanted the department to adopt a guardian mindset rather than one of a warrior. A mission statement drafted by officers put an emphasis on serving the community, and making it safe and peaceful.
Officers are being held accountable to the department’s principles, Fitzgerald said. They went from annual to monthly evaluations, which he described as an early intervention.
One challenge Fitzgerald cited involves requests for public information.
“I think the average citizen and the board would be really, really surprised by the volume of requests for information that is asked of us,” he said. “We need to work on streamlining that better.”
Policies are available to the public. While a few are available online, Fitzgerald said they all should be.
The department now publishes monthly reports breaking down daily calls by area of town, motor vehicle stops, tickets, warnings and arrests.
“So it evolved quite a bit,” Fitzgerald said.
Relationship building activities such as forums and fundraiser barbecues were touted as a success overall. Fitzgerald said survey calls to community members who received services from officers could be ramped up again and he also hopes to bring Coffee with a Cop back after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Any incident going beyond handcuffing requires a report, which Fitzgerald called “a threshold I don’t think you’re going to see at too many departments.”
“If they point a taser at you, they have to do a use-of-force review,” he said.
The reports go to the supervisor then the captain then the chief. They are “looked at many times and through many lenses,” Fitzgerald said, not just for compliance with policies but also with the mission statement and principles.
Chokeholds are prohibited by the department. Fitzgerald said he doesn’t remember any training where they were taught.
About two years ago, the department started using body cameras. Fitzgerald said a policy was reviewed by the Select Board in public meetings.
“Currently, the Vermont Legislature is drafting a statewide body camera policy,” he said. “It is unknown how much or what will change in our policy but as it progresses we will absolutely update the town manager and Select Board as details become known.”
Responding to mental health crises is “fluid, unpredictable and at times dangerous,” Fitzgerald said.
“That is an area that should be examined in depth and at great length,” he said, advocating for a course of action that addresses the needs of and best outcomes for a patient. “We should not be the primary responders, we as in law enforcement.”
The department has a social worker on staff through a collaboration with Health Care & Rehabilitation Services. Fitzgerald said conversations with executives at HCRS have been initiated to identify potential improvements to their process.
Profiling for stops is prohibited by the department. Fitzgerald said there’s no quota or any incentives for more arrests or citations and the department doesn’t report to federal agencies on a person’s immigration status.
Previously, no-trespass orders were handed out to people on public properties with no grievance process. Fitzgerald said after discussions with local officials and organizations, the department decided the town manager could dismiss an order or set a time limit on it.
Restorative justice is said to be preferred to court action whenever possible. Fitzgerald said officers also try to point out resources available in the community.
“We’ve been getting calls from all over New England about how we started Project CARE and what we do,” he said of the program which stands for Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement, where officers and recovery coaches reach out to community members who may be dealing with substance use disorder and steer them toward treatment.
If a person is getting medically assisted treatment for opioids, the department will make sure they get to their appointments while in police custody.
“That’s how important we think that is,” Fitzgerald said.
He described how the department looks for job applicants who “support fairness, compassion and cultural sensitivity.” He said training has become “more realistic and scenario based.”
Fitzgerald attributed a large portion of injuries and deaths among police officers to poor physical health and nutrition, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation and substance misuse. He said peer-to-peer counselors and certified fitness trainers are available to Brattleboro officers, and the station has a gym.
“I’m going to kill the myth,” he said. “The bulletproof cop doesn’t exist. We are human and we experience the same trials and tribulations as everyone else.”
Having community conversations when major incidents occur is a way in which Fitzgerald believes more trust can be developed.
“Whether it happened in Brattleboro or elsewhere is irrelevant,” he said. “The erosion of confidence and trust is the same. I think we should be able to meet and carry on a respectful civil discussion about the incident and come away more comfortable than saying, ‘Well it didn’t happen in Brattleboro so why are we talking about it?’ You can feel the impact. It’s there on the street. It’s discussed at every dinner table in town.”
Fitzgerald also called for the charge of the Citizens Police Communications Committee, which reviews complaints and interactions, to be reviewed. He suggested the committee could become more involved.
“Transparency is paramount,” he said. “Accurate data is critical.”
As of now, the department doesn’t have a data analyst.
Board member Brandie Starr told Fitzgerald she’s going to miss him.
“I have a great affinity for you and your system,” she said. “I wish you the best.”
Capt. Mark Carignan, who will serve as interim chief starting at the end of the year, said he has talked with the Community Safety Review Committee about better ways to address mental health calls and he’s open to meeting with other groups. He also spoke of wanting to be fully transparent about how town funds are being spent within the department.
While acknowledging the town’s ongoing efforts towards achieving greater diversity, equity and inclusion, Carignan said the department has work to do within the first area.
“That’s an area where we’re not strong,” he said. “It’s an area where we need to continue to develop.”