BRATTLEBORO — Setting the town on a path toward evaluating systems and addressing injustices, the Select Board unanimously voted to authorize town staff to move forward on implementing recommendations outlined in a community safety report.
“We acknowledge the centuries of white people holding power in our country including here in Vermont and here in Brattleboro has perpetuated systemic racism that has caused and still causes harm to people of color throughout our country,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said in a statement read at the board meeting held remotely Tuesday, adding that systemic oppression also affects the LGBTQIA+ community, people living with disabilities, psychiatrically labeled individuals and other historically marginalized groups. “We acknowledge that, as documented in the community safety review team’s report, people here in our community have experienced harm from the existing systems in our community. Finally, we acknowledge that as people in positions of authority today, we have an obligation to develop a more complete understanding of the harm that is being experienced and to take action to prevent and reduce such harm as we move forward from this time.”
The importance of acknowledging harm and committing to a reckoning is one of the first few recommendations in the town-commissioned report, Elwell said before reading the statement. The report was released Dec. 31 after a process involving two facilitators and a committee, all of whom were paid for their efforts.
In January, the board asked town staff to bring back additional information on how to approach implementation. On Tuesday, Elwell encouraged the board and community to look at the report “as a body of work rather than pieces of actions to be taken.”
The town’s plan calls for regular updates at board meetings regarding progress on implementation; committing to increasing and improving analysis of race in traffic stops and other data; looking at alternative models of public oversight; improving police training; making policy and budgetary decisions based on input from the report; continuing commitments to refuse militarized equipment, conduct fair and impartial policing, and protect confidentiality and victims; reviewing whether a social worker program in the police department should be modified or eliminated; looking at how officers engage with the community during public relations efforts; learning more about disarming officers for certain calls or events; and developing a plan to decouple animal control calls from the police department.
Input from town staff isn’t meant to “replace or recast” the report’s 41 recommendations, said Elwell, who anticipates it will take years to implement some of the items.
“The more we give our attention to trying to resolve the urgency versus patience and perseverance, the more we are sort of pulling ourselves out of the work to try to manage it more clinically,” he said. “It’s important to get started and we have to have faith in ourselves and in each other and in the folks in the community who are going to be our collaborators to find our way forward.”
Before the municipal budget was approved to be presented at the upcoming annual Representative Town Meeting on March 20, the Select Board voted 3-2 to level fund police training. The report recommended freezing increases for the training in an effort to focus on efficient use of that budget.
The town can’t suspend the use of paid administrative leave for police officers under investigation for acts of harm and violent acts as the report recommends. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “requires all public sector employers to provide due process to their employees before imposing disciplinary action,” states a town document on implementing the report’s recommendations.
Pensions can’t be withheld from officers involved in excessive force violations as the report recommends. The town doesn’t have jurisdiction over rules that apply to pensions through the Vermont Municipal Employees Retirement System, according to the document.
“The town conducts rigorous background checks on all prospective police officers and does not hire anyone who has been fired (or resigned while under investigation) for excessive use of force,” the document reads, addressing a recommendation for not rehiring police involved in such violations.
A recommendation to consider steps to decouple traffic safety management from police also can’t be implemented. State laws currently restrict the activity to law enforcement, but the document describes town staff being open to considering alternatives if they become legal in Vermont.
Regarding a recommendation to review and consider models for completely voluntary and noncoercive supports run by the communities they are designed to serve, the document says town staff received initial information about such programs and they are prepared to work with the community to explore possibilities.
Project CARE or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement was created by the Brattleboro Police Department, collaborating with social service agencies to steer individuals into treatment for substance use. But it could be run by a nonprofit with or without police participation, the document states, referring to a recommendation in the report to deeply review the program’s outcomes and possibly hand it off to another organization.
Select Board members applauded town staff’s approach to implementation.
“It was a lot of great work,” board member Ian Goodnow said, seeing the plan as being a positive way forward for the whole community.
“It’s a roadmap for a future board,” added Tim Wessel, board chairman, calling it a “solid commitment.”
Community members who were involved in the process or watched it unfold over the last few months also celebrated the move on Facebook.