I have been reading the many perspectives on the need for re-envisioning policing in our town, always with an eye to understanding how the issue must affect people I may never see or know and anxious to know more. I read the letter from Derek Johnson and Wichie Artu ("Defunding the Police - Overcoming Silence," July 3) and wanted to offer some history.
I have been a pastor in Guilford since 2000. We have many African American members of the church, which means I have suffered with them as they have suffered terribly, at work because of unfair practices, at school through invisibility, by strangers because of prejudice, and yes, by police who have not defended their rights as equally as they do white citizens. My heart broke reading the circumstances of Michael Santiago's death as I have known his family for many years. The trust I have felt being part of people's lives has stirred me to participate actively on the state and local level for racial justice. There is much work to be done in all sectors and by all of us together.
This said, some of the most meaningful work I have done has been with Chief Michael Fitzgerald and his predecessor, Eugene Wrinn — and with Curtiss Reed Jr and Mary Gannon — to develop and require anti-bias training for the Brattleboro Police Department and for the Vermont State Police. Ironically the major impediment to requiring extensive training and to hiring a more diverse police force has always been funding. Ironically the major impediment to have a more full-bodied program to include social workers on the response teams has been funding. Ironically the major impediment to have a more effective response to overdoses has been the lack of funds.
Nonetheless, the Brattleboro Police Department earned the New England Association of Chiefs of Police Community Policing Award for agencies serving populations below 15,000 residents. In the Reformer on August 21, there were quotes from the Director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters as well as Groundworks Collaborative who nominated Chief Fitzgerald for this honor. As long ago as 2009, police sat with young people at the Boys and Girls Club to hear their concerns and as recently as this past fall there was a series of meetings at the Works with police and members of the homeless community. When I called asking for security for Kiah Morris when she spoke for our Martin Luther King Jr event in 2019, the chief himself came and stood in the background at the ready.
Racism permeates every aspect of our community from the health care system to local businesses, in our schools and, yes, in our faith communities, and we all need our eyes wide open and our feet ready to walk our walk and talk our talk. I would also like to suggest that we work with the police as we would want to be worked with and spoken to ourselves. That we recognize the roles we all play in what are called micro-aggressions — small omissions of what could be kindness towards those serving our communities. That we admit as the police has done in the case of Chad Emery when grievous misdeeds are done and hold people accountable. But I would also ask that we hold each other accountable. The people of color in my church community would benefit greatly if their doctors and teachers, neighbors and strangers would offer the kind of respect we are asking of the police.
And yes we need to find funds for service agencies who serve the homeless and under-served, the mentally ill and those suffering from addictions ... funds we ourselves may need to pony up to provide for those suffering in our community.
Lise Sparrow is the reverend at Guilford Community Church. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.