Town staff to revise public safety review proposals

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BRATTLEBORO — Unable to come to a consensus on whether to approve or edit a request for proposals for a public safety review crafted by community members in the wake of national protests over racism and police brutality, Select Board members asked town staff to try their hands at coming up with something agreeable.

After about five hours of discussion at Thursday's special Select Board meeting held remotely with about 70 participants and dedicated to consideration of the document, Town Manager Peter Elwell proposed "small adjustments" be made while acknowledging the likelihood that no one will be entirely happy with the finished product. He suggested eliminating any sense of exclusion of the community, completing parts of the review by Dec. 31 in time for budget talks, and being clearer about the Select Board's authority and responsibility.

Elwell said he believes it is important for the review's recommendations to be actionable for town government. He anticipates a document could be ready for the board's Aug. 18 meeting.

"This RFP is in hopes of being able to introduce some kind of ongoing process to evaluate public safety," said Wichie Artu, who spoke on behalf of community members involved in developing the document.

Artu — who serves on the council on racial equity at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the governor's task force on equity, and the Root Social Justice Center's Black and Indigenous People of Color Caucus — said community members who participated have long been involved in social justice efforts and have had encounters with police. The document called for an independent facilitator or group of facilitators with anti-racism experience to collaborate with a review committee of community members and come up with recommendations for structural improvements, with all participants receiving payment and childcare being made available.

"The review will examine (but is not limited to): the Brattleboro Police Department, Town support for non-profit organizations, social service agencies, and other community resources, as well as identifying currently unmet community needs," the document reads. " This open process will invite in the wealth of knowledge and life experiences that our community holds about police, social services, racism, oppression, and alternatives to punishment and violence. We are working toward a community that is free of white supremacy in all of its manifestations."

Support for the project was signaled in statements read by officials from Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, Groundworks Collaborative, Brattleboro Community Justice Center and Tenants Union of Brattleboro. Mel Motel, executive director of the justice center, said the project might make those in power uncomfortable but it is worthwhile for those it will help.

Select Board members expressed gratitude to the authors of the document. Board member Brandie Starr described being curious to learn about unknown aspects of the community and somewhat unwilling to make edits to the document due to her own privilege.

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Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin suggested a review of the police budget, policies and procedures. She said a second study aimed at community healing could be run by a nonprofit that could seek funds from the town.

Edits proposed by McLoughlin included making the deadline for a report to be due by the end of the year instead of March when annual Representative Town Meeting is held and having a committee run the process instead of a facilitator. She also questioned the need for words such as "white supremacy" and "decolonized" to be in the document.

A municipal body should not be making "overtly political statements," said Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel. He called for taking "a hard look" at the police budget and priorities during what he described as a historical moment of reckoning.

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"I'm looking for something our entire community can get behind because I believe in the democratic process," he said, later adding that residents have reached out to privately to raise concerns about the document.

Franz Reichsman, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee, said his main concern has to do with exclusion.

"Facilitators or committee members cannot not be part of the Citizen Police

Communication Committee (CPCC), the police, any individual that works in the police department or police union, or any Selectboard member," the document states.

Quipp, who participated in meetings where a proposal for the project was initially being drafted by community members, said he was prepared to find some common ground. But Shea Witzo warned against diverging too far from the original proposal to avoid breaking the trust of the community.

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"How are we spending four meetings talking about our differences instead of saying, 'Let's move forward?'" said Liz Francese, a member of the tenants union. "Please make this work for us because we will make it work for the people who come after us. That's what we believe the Select Board should be doing now, preparing this town for who is coming next and then we will pass on that torch."

Quipp did not anticipate the board would entirely agree on the document, which he said was inspired by personal and professional history. He wanted members of the town's CPCC to have the ability to participate in the review and to shorten the deadline to the end of the year.

McLoughlin encouraged the board to allow town staff to revise the RFP to ensure it fits with the board's authority but maintain the spirit of the project, an action all board members eventually agreed to.

"It needs to be representative of the town," said board member Ian Goodnow, who earlier in the meeting called for a clearer direction and a permanent committee.

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the project "an opportunity to show who we are, to show we have some brass in this area."

"I've watched a plethora of videos now and it has been a maddening process," he said, referring to recent board meetings. "The job of a board is to represent the voiceless, the people who come together and coalesce for survival. Is that not what's happening?"

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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