What is there to say about the final report of the Brattleboro Community Safety Review Project? In fact, there’s a lot one could say about it, which should not be surprising since it’s a 224-page document that summarizes months of work relating to important questions of public policy.
While most people will probably read the Executive Summary (available at https://bit.ly/3l0iqjm) and perhaps the 22 pages of Key Findings and Recommendations, the full scope of the project — both what was done and what was not done — is important when considering the numerous recommendations made.
The Community Safety Review Team (committee members and the two facilitators) were given a large task to complete within a short period of time, so choices had to be made about what to do and how to do it. The choices they made are an integral part of the project and must be taken into account in an evaluation of the report’s recommendations.
The first choice was a specific and consistent focus on bringing forward the points of view of people with “lived experience” of interactions with the police and other agencies exercising police-like powers over the community, including mental health and child protective services. In particular, groups considered to have been socially and politically marginalized in the past were made central to the process. This means chiefly the BIPoC, LGBTQIA+, and psychiatrically labelled communities. Other groups were considered less important, at least at this stage, and few comments from law enforcement agencies are included.
A second choice was not to define what safety means in this effort, but rather to leave it to the participating individuals to decide what safety means to them. As a result, we are often told that people do not feel safe, without knowing what led them to feel that way, or to what degree their safety was actually threatened. Considerations of housing, food, and general economic security are often included in the definitions of safety.
A third choice was that confidentiality is of paramount importance. Confidentiality was considered more important than revealing details of the events that occurred and led to the feelings expressed by participants. Strict confidentiality was deemed necessary because of the threat of retribution if any participant could be identified by the details of the information given.
As a result, the reader of the report is often left to imagine what actually happened.
Even as we acknowledge that wrongs have occurred and must be corrected, not having information about the specific events and problems we face in our community limits an effort to understand and remediate those problems. The threat of retribution is often mentioned, but again details are not provided, so how to make it feel safe and resolve the contradiction between confidentiality and sharing information remains to be addressed.
The facilitators and the committee gathered information in a variety of ways, all of which involved motivated individuals stepping forward to relate their lived experiences. Information was gathered by listening to individuals and groups, by creating a written survey document for providing input anonymously, by reviewing documents and reports, and by having weekly (or sometimes more frequent) public meetings online. There was no attempt to survey a broad or representative sample of the community as a whole. Because the participants were self-selected, no inferences can be drawn as to how reflective their reports are of the entire community. The Final Report was written entirely by the two facilitators.
While the choice not to embark on a community-wide survey or sampling procedure is understandable in view of the time and resources that would be needed, some community groups may feel that their views and concerns are not being seriously considered. The effort to find solutions may sometimes lack the broad-based support needed for successful implementation.
How much of a gap may exist in widespread community support remains to be seen. Public safety concerns getting little attention in the CSRP include such things as gun ownership, school shootings, political fringe group violence, drug-related crime and overdose deaths, burglary, and theft. These topics are important issues for many people.
Circling back, the upshot of all this is that an extensive body of work reporting on the feelings of parts of our community has been provided for all of us to consider. The breadth of the topics considered in the Final Report, and the importance of additional community safety topics, make it imperative to look at each recommendation individually, rather than adopting them without looking carefully at each one.
The importance of this work is underlined by the attention that has been given and is being given to it. The Select Board and town administration have acted quickly to create and adopt ways to implement recommendations in the final report. As everyone seems to agree, a lot more work needs to be done. What to prioritize in that process may not be as easily agreed upon, and some elements of the Final Report may generate controversy.
Moving forward and arriving at a safer and more equitable community will be facilitated if detailed information can be provided to the community as a whole as to what specific problems we face and what specific solutions we should consider. Additional time, additional resources, and additional involvement by a broad coalition of community members will all be needed in this effort.