Brattleboro Common Sense was delighted to attend Brattleboro’s enthusiastic, people-powered Community Safety Review Committee public forum Monday evening (Nov. 16). The town turned out in droves to share their experiences with and relating to the Brattleboro Police Department, and how that relationship has affected their feelings of attachment or separation to the community as a whole. Brattleboro Common Sense is grateful for everyone involved in putting on this raw and enlightening forum, particularly the residents who spoke up about their experiences and the committee facilitators Shea and Emily, who encouraged an inclusive, safe, and mindful atmosphere. From the very start, it was clear that this would be an opportunity for the community to speak about their individual experiences, which is why we treated the meeting as a space to hear and learn from Brattleboro’s residents, rather than promote our own thoughts and proposals.
However, while listening to the Brattleboro community speak that night, we were constantly reminded of Brattleboro Common Sense’s own S.A.F.E. Policing proposal, currently being weighed by the committee. It is clear from what many of the speakers had to say that their relations with police do not merely sour them on the institution of policing, but, in fact, make them feel separate from the community they reside in. This echoed sentiment is a harrowing blow for the seemingly welcoming and close-knit city of Brattleboro: not every person who lives here feels like they belong, in large part because they feel singled out, dismissed, unheard, and harassed/abused by the local police. Brattleboro must not be a tale of two cities, where one segment of the population feels like an underclass and the other segment is ignorant to the fact that a problem even exists. If we want our perception of Brattleboro being a welcoming and close-knit community to match with reality, there is a clear necessity to change the experience of disaffected residents for the better.
Brattleboro Common Sense firmly believes that the way forward is reflected in those comments from the public Monday night. Most eyebrow-raising for us, several speakers brought up the way the firearm makes them feel: scared, anxious, threatened, like they’re walking on eggshells. One went so far as to ask in regard to officers’ firearms: “Why do you need that? Who is it going to get used on?” Frankly, our organization asks the same question. One resident brought up Chief Fitzgerald’s refusal to remove his firearm for a public meeting. The person who asked him to do that was our director, Kurt Daims.
Our S.A.F.E. Policing proposal seeks to answer the question, “Why do officers need firearms?”, with the short answer being: in most circumstances, they don’t. We argue that the first step in improving both public safety and trust between police and the community is to end the body-carrying of firearms for most officers. They do not need firearms to carry out their day-to-day work, and their presence is both a cause for tension/escalation and promotes a risk of unnecessary lethality in police work. The S.A.F.E. Policing proposal calls for a pilot program, in which all BPD officers would acquire 30 hours of experience each in policing either without direct access to a firearm (if on foot), or with their firearm secured in their vehicle (if driving). The pilot program would require them to lean on de-escalation, nonlethal weapons, hand-to-hand combat training, distancing techniques, their own legitimacy as police officers, and if necessary, lethally armed backup, rather than resorting to the drawing or use of a firearm. We believe this experience in the field will provide the town with clear data pointing to the success or failure of the pilot, and that, should it be successful, S.A.F.E. Policing should be the model BPD employs moving forward.
The Committee is hosting an open mic night this Saturday, Nov. 21, with a similar setup to Monday’s forum. We’re intending to attend this upcoming meeting and speak briefly on S.A.F.E. Policing, as well as support others who wish to speak/share/perform. We encourage all who are interested in local reform to attend.