Letter: Lack of transparency is main problem

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Editor of the Reformer:

Re: "Brattleboro police officer on leave after disturbance in Guilford," June 23.

It seems to me that, in addition to the absolutely appalling tale of domestic violence/drunk driving, this is an equally important part of this story:

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael "Gunny" Fitzgerald said his department will conduct an internal review and the Vermont State Police will conduct its criminal investigation. Fitzgerald said the department's internal report will most likely be confidential under the department's collective bargaining agreement with the police union.

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People in Brattleboro are forever praising, in most cases deservedly, our police department, saying that there are plenty of good people working for them. Working in town over the past 8 years, and occasionally in my own neighborhood, I've had many encounters, nearly all positive, where most officers showed care, patience and professionalism. I've had excellent experiences that have made me feel grateful that we have so many decent people protecting us. But I've also been in situations where I've been afraid of what the officer responding might do to others present. In one instance, when calling for help because a vulnerable person had been attacked/beaten, I had to put my foot against the door and ask the responding officer banging violently on it to promise he would not hurt that person before I let him in. (I'd told the dispatcher that we were locked in/no one was in danger.) That ended well, mostly, I think, because of the calming influence of the other officer present, but it was quite terrifying for both me and the person who'd been attacked.

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In another extremely upsetting situation, an officer interviewing me about a man who had been found dead by suicide, shortly after visiting our place of work, attempted to get me to agree with him (I'd seen the man for 5 minutes) that 'the dude was crazy.' Not the sort of respect for people/sensitivity public servants should be taught to convey, in my opinion. I don't expect Norman Rockwell-style policing, but that experience makes me sick even now to think of it.

I've asked about those varying 'styles' of policing at different forums. Each time I get the same answer: 'All responses are valid. Different officers are trained in different ways, depending on where they come from, and one officer trained in town might use a method of talking people down/making peace, while another might immediately force a person to the ground, kneel on them and cuff them without asking a single question/saying a word. All responses are valid.'

That's one problem - the inexplicable absence of any federally standardized code of conduct, minimum education and background requirements or even remotely similar training across the nearly 18 thousand police forces in this country (and, admittedly, that problem doesn't explain/excuse the actions of a man who has been on THIS police force for two decades).

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But the main problem, illustrated by Chief Fitzgerald's statement, above, seems to be transparency, something without which there can never be real trust. How are we to know if an officer is, has been, or potentially may be a danger to our community or whether he/she has committed any offense deemed unworthy of someone who's sworn to protect and serve us? And most importantly, why are the police so afraid that we know?

Pat Sheehan

Brattleboro, June 24


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