Brattleboro Common Sense would like to thank Select Board member Tim Wessel for his spirited contribution to the public discourse on police reform. His commentary in Tuesday’s (Jan. 19) Reformer, “Let’s not derail progress on policing with foolish policy directions,” made clear the depths of his passion for this issue, and we look forward to further discussing our SAFE Policing Proposal with him at Board meetings, whether he would like us to or not.
However, it is also clear from his tone and comments that we have not yet properly communicated to him what the “Sensible Alternatives to Fatal Escalation” plan, as recommended by the Community Safety Review Committee in their final report, entails. At the moment, one could say there are two plans: the one Tim Wessel believes exists, and the one that we have actually put forward. We write this commentary to help clarify the difference between these two plans, explain how and why SAFE Policing can be implemented (safely) and address some of the concerns Mr. Wessel raised.
First, what is SAFE Policing, and what has the Committee recommended in their report? SAFE is, simply put, the idea that the equipment a police officer visibly carries on their body impacts both the manner in which their job is conducted and the way they are perceived by the public. To this end, our research suggests that the benefits from specifically limiting the role of police firearms to emergency use by a) immediately ending the practice of police carrying firearms at low-threat public events; b) ending the body-carry of firearms on routine patrols; and c) having officers in patrol vehicles keep their firearms locked in the vehicle unless needed, are numerous. These changes would improve trust, respect, and police legitimacy in interactions with members of the public who are fearful/distrustful of police, would curtail the risk of unnecessary fatal escalation (in favor of officers relying on their training and defensive capabilities to de-escalate and protect their safety in the field), and would ensure officers have access to firearms in the event that they become necessary. These changes would come about, as per the Committee’s recommendations, under a careful and calculated implementation process. As an initial step, police would immediately cease carrying firearms at most public events. Additionally, a SAFE pilot program would be created, which would see each Brattleboro Police Department officer acquire roughly one hour per week of experience patrolling without a body-carried firearm for six months, followed by a public hearing to discuss the pilot’s successes and failures. Long-term, the Committee has recommended that the full SAFE plan be implemented by 2025, seeing officers switch from body-carrying firearms to employing a vehicle-carry/vehicle-backup system in most cases. The process will be slow, methodical, and carried out with the utmost care for both the safety of officers and the public.
Mr. Wessel’s claim that officers would be thrown into dangerous situations without the means to defend themselves from violence are baseless, no matter how many times he asks us to “please” not dispute them. Has anyone claimed that officers would not have access to firearms and lethally-armed support in circumstances that require them? No. Has anyone claimed that officers would be sent into violent domestic disturbance calls without personal protection? No. Though, with regards to the latter, it’s worth noting that nonlethal equipment is objectively better in most circumstances like that, as it can’t be taken by said domestic abuser in the confusion and used to slay the officer, something which happens tragically frequently in the U.S.
Mr. Wessel also brings up the high per capita firearm ownership rate in the United States as a threat to nonlethally armed officers. This is, perhaps, the most common criticism we hear of SAFE, and one we are quite used to discussing. It is true that the U.S. has roughly 125 firearms per 100 people, and that firearms are a leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among officers. This, however, obscures several facts relevant to this discussion in Brattleboro. First, the firearm ownership rate in Vermont is not significantly different from that in key countries the SAFE Policing model is based on; only 28 percent of households in Vermont possess a registered firearm, compared with 20 percent in New Zealand and 40 percent in Switzerland (our high per capita rate comes from gun enthusiasts, who often purchase many guns but do not represent a correlated threat to public safety). New Zealand requires officers to keep their firearms in their cruisers, and Switzerland does not arm most officers. Second, officers in Vermont are not at apparent threat from firearms. How else would one explain the fact that no officer in the state has been killed with a firearm since 1973? No one is arguing that policing is not a dangerous job, but surely officers are avoiding being shot by civilians in ways other than “beating them to the draw,” no? Officers rely on their training, defensive equipment, information, and their own legitimacy as agents of the law for protection. SAFE Policing asks them to continue doing so, but with less risk of miscalculation and unnecessary civilian deaths. The average person in the UK is 1/114th as likely to be shot by police as their American counterpart, and that has little to do with British gun control.
I will close by saying that Mr. Wessel appears to desire to have his cake and eat it, too. He praises the Committee as a representative and inclusive entity that was formed to hear the opinions of those most underrepresented in the town, only to argue that one of their most substantive recommendations based on that inclusivity be thrown out because he personally disagrees with it. He pays lip service to the idea of making decisions for the community on a democratic basis, and yet is obstructing efforts to pass the Committee’s recommendations in their entirety to the Representative Town Meeting for fear of what a truly democratic process will decide to do. He speaks of an important and reasonable reform as “foolish,” yet appears to have not read or understood it. The Committee helped make very clear that, for people of color in particular and many underrepresented groups in Brattleboro more generally, steps need to be taken to make the community something everyone feels a part of. I fear that Mr. Wessel, the self-professed “conservative” of the Board, wishes to simply maintain the status quo without incurring the righteous indignation of community members the CSRC was convened to give voice to. Their voices have been heard, and apparently, Mr. Wessel doesn’t like what they had to say.