BRATTLEBORO — After receiving a two-hour presentation on a 224-page report filled with recommendations aimed at improving community safety, Select Board members are absorbing the material and plan to pick it back up at upcoming meetings.
At a board meeting held remotely Tuesday with about 120 participants, Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel said some of the items will need to be addressed before elections and annual Representative Town Meeting in March. Board members agreed with his suggestion to develop a list of action items with categories related to timing in the coming weeks.
Shea Witzberger, one of the two facilitators hired by the town to the lead the project in September, urged them to take action now while they are still in office. Seats held by board members Brandie Starr, Daniel Quipp and Ian Goodnow will be up for election.
“I would encourage you to commit to whatever you can commit to and make the changes in whatever way you need to make them as long lasting as possible,” Witzberger said. “If you believe this is a systemic issue, this issue isn’t going to end when you get off the board.”
Witzberger said the facilitators wanted to leave it up to the board to decide how to begin approaching recommended actions in the report, which was released Friday on brattleboro.org. The list includes committing to no more increases in the Brattleboro Police Department budget, decreasing the size of the police force over time, ending a police social worker liaison program, disarming officers for certain calls or patrols, building up support structures, and acknowledging and addressing systemic racism/white supremacy, ableism and sanism, homophobic and transphobic discrimination, and classism in an ongoing way via budgeting and other practices.
Lana Dever, one of the nine Community Safety Review Committee members appointed by the board to participate in the project, said it is sad the process was needed to let the town know how people of color and other marginalized groups are feeling terror.
“I’m fed up and sick of it,” she said. “And so I hope this stands to change people’s hearts and minds and help people understand what we’re going through. And if it doesn’t, for God’s sake, I mean open up a history book. Black people have been saying this since we were brought over here.”
Dever described the process being “very collaborative” and “very transparent.”
“And there was plenty of opportunity given for anyone if they wanted to speak or have dissent,” she said. “The idea that there was a committee member who didn’t feel like that was sort of a slap in the face at the end of the process and quite surprising to myself.”
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, committee member Kelsey Rice provided a statement to the board in which she raised concerns about not getting her questions about data answered and not having adequate time for the review. She also opposed a recommendation to freeze funds for police training until needs are assessed.
On Tuesday, Rice told the board she did not sign up for the project to make friends or stroke egos.
“My perspective on some avenues that I feel like we maybe should take aren’t in alignment,” she said. “I’m so impressed by the work that’s gone into the project.”
Dever said she never heard the word “dissent” come from Rice “because it would have been listened to.”
“The gears would have gone back a little bit,” Dever said. “The conversations were open.”
Kaz DeWolfe, a committee member, largely supported the recommendations but would have liked to have seen what he called bolder prison abolitionist reforms and an attempt to eliminate funds for police training altogether.
“The trainings around inclusivity or bias are never effective,” DeWolfe said.
Emily Megas-Russell, facilitator, said people have to be ready to receive the training and that involves acknowledging bias and discrimination in the community.
The report recommends disbanding the town’s Citizen Police Communications Committee, which is charged with facilitating communication between residents and the BPD, and coming up with a process for reviewing complaints and police procedures that holds the department more accountable. CPCC member Gary Stroud said he’s “always in the arena for change and change is good.”
Witzberger said voluntary support for mental health crises, mutual aid groups, projects led by marginalized people and systems to provide basic needs will help many community members. These are seen as alternatives to policing.
The facilitators suggest starting to fund in the next budget cycle projects to provide safe housing, food shelves, community meals and land trusts that empower marginalized people.
Laura Stamas, a committee member, said participating in the process “was a very powerful experience.”
“I felt like our voices were diverse and a lot of people shared their lived experience,” she said. “I really am hoping you can hear and see how valuable these recommendations are to make us all safer and stronger and an even more beautiful, vibrant community for everyone.”
Board member Ian Goodnow said he anticipates “some pretty long conversations in the next couple of weeks about the report.”
“And I’m excited to have them,” he said.