Board finalizes public safety review process

Brattleboro, Vt., Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald joins with several hundred people to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter silent protest at the Brattleboro Common, in Brattleboro, Vt., on Friday, June 12, 2020.

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BRATTLEBORO — A town-commissioned report to improve public safety recommends measures related to police training, ending a police social worker program, disarming officers for certain calls and events, publicly acknowledging racism and other negative experiences experienced by community members, and building up support structures.

The process involved a nine-member advisory committee appointed by the Select Board in September and two facilitators who the town paid $40,000 for the undertaking. Public forums, private listening sessions and surveys for community members and those employed in local organizations informed the effort.

“There’s a lot we’re not able to put in the report,” Emily Megas-Russell, facilitator, said at the Community Safety Review Committee meeting held remotely Monday. “In a community this size, a lot is identifiable.”

A draft excerpt from the report was discussed at the meeting with no dissent on the findings and general agreement on the recommendations. A much more extensive document will be released Friday and is expected to be on the Select Board’s Tuesday meeting agenda.

The report points to a study from 2014 to 2019 conducted by professors at University of Vermont and Cornell University, which suggests Black drivers in Brattleboro are “overstopped” 31 to 60 percent more than white drivers. Black drivers are 4.8 times more likely to be arrested and nine times more likely to be searched than white drivers, and when Black drivers are searched they are 30 percent less likely to have contraband than white drivers, according to the study.

The facilitators are calling for the department to “deeply analyze” racial disparities in traffic stops. They suggest reviewing all arrests and searches of drivers from the period of the study.

The report says BPD data for use of force incidents from 2019 and 2020 shows that in 17 percent and 13 percent of cases, respectively, a subject who was Black was involved.

“These percentages are significantly higher than the percentage of African Americans, and all People of Color, living in Brattleboro (according to the US Census 2019 estimates),” the report states. “While the Department has recently proposed increased training around this issue, their existing lack of ongoing assessment, acknowledgement, or accountability about racial disparity data and their reflections about the integration of their existing training do not demonstrate readiness or receptivity to reducing bias, which renders these resources ineffective.”

The report says some respondents from the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community called for police training on racial bias, “but a stronger theme was desire for reduced policing in their communities, more support for investing in meeting people’s needs and BIPOC led efforts, and a smaller investment in policing and the prison industrial complex they function inside of.”

Police responses to mental and emotional crises are described in the report as “ineffective and often harmful for many community members.”

“While being held in the Emergency Department [at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital] or psychiatrically incarcerated in the [Brattleboro] Retreat, several respondents named experiencing inhumane treatment that some described as torture,” the report states.

Many mental health professionals in the community said patients and workers are in danger due to conditions and practices in the Retreat, according to the report. One floor at the mental health and addictions hospital is described as using “more restraint and seclusion than all other psychiatric facilities in Vermont combined.”

“Statistics show that psychiatric incarceration (involuntary hospitalization) increases, rather than decreases, risks of negative health outcomes and suicide,” the report states.

The report recommends efforts to “decouple police from welfare checks” and to work toward alternatives that do not involve force, coercion or incarceration.

BPD data shows nearly all dispatch calls for welfare checks are initiated by someone other than the person perceived to be in crisis, according to the report. Many respondents who experienced police responding to such checks described the intervention being unwanted and some felt it was criminalizing mental illness or psychiatric disability.

The facilitators found no evidence that the BPD’s police social worker liaison program was reducing incarceration or hospitalization. They said it “expands the reach of policing in mental health, which the police themselves have recently lamented and which neurodivergent, psychiatrically labeled, psychiatrically disabled, and self-identified mad respondents resoundingly opposed.”

The report recommends eliminating the program and investing the funds in “noncoercive supports.”

“Many professionals working in mental health and social service organizations, including some in leadership, advocated for ending the police social worker program and redirecting funding toward supports that reduce contact between distressed or marginalized people and law enforcement and provide more voluntary support,” the report states.

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The report finds that responses from the Vermont Department of Children and Families involving risk to youth “often cause intergenerational trauma and do not address the roots of unsafety for children.”

“Some parents who had experienced child removal named harmful psychiatric interventions including forced drugging and other traumatic treatment, named by those respondents as torture, due to DCF involvement,” the report states.

Respondents shared concerns about “the disproportionate removal of children of color and lack of accountability in the child protective system,” according to the report. “People of color and queer and trans people who had experienced DCF involvement as youth named feeling particularly underserved and harmed in DCF custody. Parents of color named being disbelieved by DCF or the court when expressing that their children’s white parent was causing significant danger or harm to their children.”

“From community and organizational listening information, DCF has shown very little attunement to the racial bias, harm, or trauma widely experienced by those with DCF involvement,” the report states.

The report calls for publicly acknowledging and accepting experiences of racism, discrimination, intimidation, fear, terror, and harm detailed in the report. It suggests the town commit to acknowledging and addressing systemic racism/white supremacy, ableism and sanism, homophobic and transphobic discrimination, and classism in an ongoing way via budgeting and other practices.

Recommendations for police involve improving department data collection and analysis; suspending the use of paid administrative leave for police under investigation for acts of harm and police who are charged with a violent crime; withholding pensions and not rehiring police who are involved in excessive force violations; making reparations with community members who feel harmed by police interactions; freezing all increases to the training budget; decoupling responses to animal issues from the police; committing to no more budget increases for policing; and reducing the size of the force over time and the use of overtime.

The report recommends eliminating a proposal to increase police training by 48 percent for fiscal year 2022. Instead, the facilitators suggest reinvesting the money into alternatives to policing. They said the department should pay “local content experts and people with lived experiences and who are most impacted to develop accountable and effective training plans with demonstrable and measurable outcomes.”

No training opportunities specific to implicit bias, diversity, equity or inclusion were made available to Brattleboro officers in 2019, according to the report. This year, there were some.

Shea Witzberger, facilitator, said “pre-work” is needed otherwise the training won’t be effective.

Other recommendations include prioritizing spending on safe housing, food shelves, free meals, community gardens, land trusts that allow marginalized people to take ownership of food production for their communities, and spaces for neighborhood connection; investing in resources deemed helpful in making people feel safe such as mutual aid support networks, BIPOC-run programs and local organizations that provide voluntary support; reviewing and considering models for completely voluntary and noncoercive supports run by communities they are designed to help; and working collaboratively toward implementation of alternative mental health supports.

The report also calls for disbanding the town’s Citizen Police Communications Committee, which is charged with facilitating communication between residents and BPD. The committee looks at complaints, compliments or information involving police procedures.

“In a review of two years of committee meeting minutes, there was no evidence of any disagreement or challenge to the police department’s findings or responses to any complaint,” states the report. The process “may serve to slow down and drag out the complaint process, with complaints sometimes going several months or over a year before being resolved. In listening and systems review information, the CPCC does not claim or intend to do systemic police accountability work, assess trends in complaints, or do policy or practice review.”

The report says the department handles all accountability processes including investigations. Black and non-Black people of color respondents disproportionately felt “attempts at accountability for department actions felt fruitless, and left those community members feeling unsafe around police and unable to safely utilize police for support when unsafe or in need,” according to the report.

Concerns about Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement) were raised by professionals who worried about the initiative’s mission, data collection, conflicts of interest and harm. Police collaborate with Turning Point of Windham County and Groundworks Collaborative to steer individuals toward treatment for substance use. The report calls for “deeply” reviewing the program and moving funding to another group outside of the police department for its use.

The facilitators suggest reducing and working toward eliminating public relations or community policing initiatives such as speaking engagements, which they wrote “disproportionately alienate marginalized people and do not create safety.” They proposed removed a quota for community engagement for officers, saying that “the best way to improve community relations is to focus on acknowledging, reducing, and eliminating harm.”

They recommended police disarm for community speaking, meetings and community events. They also would like to see the department adopt Brattleboro Common Sense’s Safe Policing proposal, which would have officers go on certain patrols without arms among other related measures.

The report says BPD should continue its commitment to fair and impartial policing, and its refusal of militarized equipment.