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As communities across our nation are grappling with a new awareness of the harm caused by the evils of systemic racism, many are looking to what changes should be made at the local level to better support those who are most harmed. I’m proud that Brattleboro has once again sought to be proactive in our approach to making our community more equitable, with one of the first efforts resulting in the formation of the Community Safety Review Committee, which focused strongly on hearing the stories and gathering opinions of BIPOC, queer, and trans residents of Brattleboro and Windham County.

As the authors of the final CSRC report have reminded us, this work will require an ongoing commitment from towns around our nation to steadily move toward greater justice. As chair of the Brattleboro Select Board, I look forward to working with this board, and the new one that will be elected in just a couple months, to make progress toward greater equity for all of our residents, and more “seats at the table” for marginalized Brattleboro communities.

As I said at our last meeting, I want this to be the start of a successful, collaborative and democratic effort to create a more equitable Brattleboro. What I did not say, since it felt a little early in the discussions, is that there are a few recommendations put forward by the committee that I strongly believe are not only misguided, but will also derail the progress we all seek.

The CSRC decision to support the S.A.F.E. (“Sensible Alternatives to Fatal Escalation”) proposal is shocking to me, since that proposal is naive, and lacking any evidence that it is a wise move for any municipality within the United States. The SAFE policing plan is to essentially disarm our police from most patrols and incoming codes of police activity. The proponents of this idea point to successful unarmed policing in the UK and New Zealand, but fail to admit that unlike overseas, in the United States there are substantially more guns than people – 70 million more and rising. The notion to me that it is a good idea to disarm a police officer in Vermont, where open and concealed carry are legal without permits, is ludicrous. Please don’t try to tell me that in a society where guns are ubiquitous, it’s a good idea for a police officer at a large gathering to not be armed. Please don’t suggest that an officer responding to a violent domestic assault shouldn’t have at least a sidearm to stop an abuser who may have that very weapon, or worse, at the ready. How would disarming our police keep us safe? It certainly would not. Did the committee truly consider the possible real-world consequences of disarming our police?

Vermonters overwhelmingly want our police to be well-trained, well-equipped, and well-paid to ensure the quality of every officer who is charged with protecting and serving their community. I honestly believe that if we, as a community, embraced this foolish notion that we should disarm the very people who we ask to step into harm’s way for us, we will undo all of the forward progress we have made with the steady leadership of our former chief Fitzgerald, and produce a democratic backlash with residents who would be correctly alarmed at our lack of common sense.

At the last Select Board meeting, I brought up some shortcomings of the process used in the safety review committee, some concerns about the lack of inclusion of differing opinions on the recommendations, and some evidence of pre-determined opinions going into the process. Upon some reflection, I’ve realized that the shortcomings of the committee process, some of which was due to pandemic limitations and limited time, should have no bearing upon the value of the words and thoughts of those who were listened to and honored by this process. Their experiences, both elsewhere and here in Brattleboro, are to be believed, absorbed and reflected upon as we move forward with this ongoing work to make our community and our democracy even stronger.

Our next steps should be to set a path of progress toward greater equity and inclusion. That will require testimony from our police leadership, from the many dedicated people and agencies that currently work with our police, and from those most impacted by any changes we seek to implement. It’s all too tempting to believe that sudden bold actions will magically produce the society we’d all like to see, but the reality is that we must build this movement with steady progress and with democratic decision-making to make it stand the test of time. I believe we can do it together, even while we may argue over some of the details along the way. Let’s get started.

Tim Wessel is chair of the Brattleboro Select Board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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