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BRATTLEBORO — During the weeks after the first local protest held downtown in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis, town officials and community members are looking at ways local institutions may change to address systemic racism.

Shanta Lee Gander, a local writer and first person of color to serve on the Select Board, described being "wary of people finally getting the message."

"I hope that everybody knows that it doesn't end at the conversation," the former board member said in an interview. "This has to continue beyond now. I hope people know this is a long-term relationship they are entering into."

For Gander, the work also involves looking at how people have been complicit in racism and shining a light on the issue.

"I just hope it's not for this moment and we go back to the usual," she said.

In an interview, Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he hopes the protests happening worldwide will lead to better services from police departments to their communities, more open dialogue and trying new things.

"I think every department across this nation is going to look at what they're doing and assessing what they're doing and hopefully becoming better," he said. "We all have room for improvement, and it's imperative that they do that for their communities' sake and for their own sake."

'DEFUND THE POLICE'

Gander described being shocked by the number of people calling to "defund the police" at a recent Select Board meeting. She and her husband are supportive of similar efforts by friends in other places including Minneapolis but do not feel the same way about Brattleboro.

The fiscal year 2021 budget ultimately was adopted with no new changes but board members indicated a willingness to explore reform with input from the community. Given the coronavirus pandemic, the board was given special authority from the Vermont Legislature to adopt a budget this year without getting approval at Representative Town Meeting.

Doran Hamm of Brattleboro, a member of the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, and more community members have called for the town to abolish the department and develop a new model for policing. Others have encouraged reallocating funds from the police for human services.

"Defunding the police, reallocating resources is not dismantling the job of being able to bring security and trust to community," Wichie Artu of Brattleboro, a representative from the Root Social Justice Center's Black, Indigenous People of Color Caucus, said at a recent community forum hosted by the police chief. "It's a fact that the word 'police' doesn't inspire trust with my friends and me. The word police inspires fear."

Kurt Daims of Brattleboro Common Sense said his group has been working with the Brattleboro Police Department since 2018 on safe policing initiatives. He advocates for experimenting with disarming officers.

The department is constantly looking at how it operates and listening to feedback from the community, Fitzgerald said. He told forum attendees he wants the department to "do better."

The department prohibits the use of chokeholds, strangleholds and neck restraints. Policy also calls for officers to report misconduct of another officer through their chain of command.

In a letter to the community following Floyd's death, Fitzgerald said the department made de-escalation tactics a priority in use-of-force trainings.

"Once the resistance stops or the situation is under control, the tactics need to evolve with the situation," he wrote, calling compassion and empathy for fellow humans "essential" for officers.

When hiring, Fitzgerald said he looks for candidates who are "very community minded, even keeled, with the right attitude." He asks why they want to become a police officers.

"We look at what they have done in the past by helping others without expecting anything in return," he told the Reformer. "Actions speak louder than words."

Fitzgerald said he believes the protection of "bad cops" under unionized police departments, a concern raised after tragedy in Minneapolis, needs to be addressed.

"As a law enforcement executive, there should be things in place that would help reduce and eliminate bad cops that are out on the street," he said.

SOCIAL WORKERS

Regarding the "Defund the Police" movement, Fitzgerald said using funds to hire a social worker is "a great idea," as that person would be trained to address mental health issues. He also suggested the potential for beefing up staffing at other organizations so that they could respond to certain calls.

His department has a full-time social worker on staff who works regularly with officers on issues involving homeless and other at-risk residents, wrote Tim Wessel in a recent commentary. He applauded efforts of the department but also acknowledged there is always room for improvement.

"Through smart new officer hires and working together with existing officers, Chief Fitzgerald has concentrated on moving the entire department from a 'warrior' mentality to a 'guardian' culture, concentrating much energy into de-escalation trainings and putting compassion at the center of the BPD," he wrote. "The department's updated mission statement now reflects those values: 'While serving the community, we recognize the differences in the conduct of people who need our help, those who make poor decisions, and those who choose to victimize others.'"

Each year, the Select Board discusses budget priorities with the police and other municipal departments. The town also has a forum to discuss complaints against local police in the Citizens Police Communications Committee, which some community members want to give more teeth or create an independent oversight group.

Fitzgerald said a new town committee is going to be formed to discuss the department's budget. He expects town leaders, representatives from organizations and community members to participate.

In 2018, the town approved the purchase of body cameras to be worn by officers.

"These devices can assist in both training sessions and in transparency with any future questions concerning officer conduct," Wessel wrote.

During the same year came the creation of Project CARE or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement, an initiative started by the department in partnership with local organizations.

The department has not been "flawless," Gander said citing a workplace discrimination lawsuit that was filed by former officer Penny Witherbee and settled in 2019, but she feels the administration has shown the ability to want to listen to and engage with the community. Gander has met with the police as a journalist, community member and part of a larger community group.

Recalling last year's Representative Town Meeting, Gander said she supported funding the construction of a carport at the police station.

"The drama around Brattleboro doesn't stop when there's snow on the ground unfortunately," she said.

Gander said recent efforts related to supporting business owners of color and taking away police funding should be expanded to look at all of the institutions and systems in place.

"Protests are well intentioned and they're really important but that spirit needs to continue beyond the moment," she said. "Our human services definitely need more funds to do the work they're doing, that is true. It is also true that our police department under the current administration is working very hard."

Gander, who worries about what harm may come to the community with less policing resources, suggested having two full-time social workers at the police department. She expressed concern about what she sees as white progressives not leaving any space for more critical thinking and dialogue on issues. But she called the worldwide focus on equity "great."

MUNICIPAL DIVERSITY

Steps are being taken by the municipality to improve equity but there is still a "great distance to go," Town Manger Peter Elwell said in an interview. He described being optimistic about what can be achieved in the wake of protests.

"I think the reason for the current emphasis for this nationally is tragic but the unacceptability of what happened in Minneapolis and the degree to which the necessity for addressing systemic equities becoming more widely accepted in society will lead to this work in Brattleboro accelerating and also becoming more visible and hopefully more inclusive," he said.

Police and other town departments have been involved with the Community Equity Collaborative and received assistance from the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Elwell said the town wants to attract a more diverse workforce but also offer a welcoming workplace where people of all backgrounds can thrive.

Earlier this year, the town started hosting mandatory bias training for all employees and Select Board members. Elwell said the goal is to expand that into identifying then correcting systemic biases and inequities in town operations.

Last year, the town hired its first human resources director Sally Nix. Elwell said creating the position had been part of the Select Board's goals aimed at achieving greater racial equity in 2017. With no HR director, there was concern about "effective follow up."

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


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