Crime and Justice

Brattleboro leaders acknowledge safety problems, disagree on solutions

A Brattleboro Police Department cruiser at Black Mountain Road headquarters. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — The town selectboard is acknowledging problems with local police and other crisis responders, as outlined in a recent municipally sponsored report, though members are divided on how to turn the study’s recommendations into solutions.

“You look at this and you see that there are individuals in this community who have experienced harm,” Selectboard member Ian Goodnow said at an online meeting Tuesday. “The status quo is not sufficient, and we need to move forward and make changes.”

The new study by the advisory Community Safety Review Committee concluded that the town police department was “about the worst” in the state for targeting people of color. It found that the department stopped Black drivers up to 60 percent more relative to their small local population and searched them nine times more than white drivers, even though contraband was found in only 0.1 percent of all incidents.

“Black people shared many detailed instances of racist violence and injustice experienced in Brattleboro, often with no accountability or repair even after significant efforts were made,” committee co-facilitators Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger wrote in the 224-page report. “The unwillingness of local government and social services to acknowledge or end racist harm was also noted by many Black community members.”

Selectboard member Daniel Quipp, reading that passage aloud at Tuesday’s meeting, also noted that problems facing other local marginalized populations were heard by the committee, whose nine members included representatives of color, those from the LGBTQ community, people with lower incomes and individuals with substance use or psychiatric challenges.

“I want to start by acknowledging the harm experienced by people in Brattleboro who contributed their stories to the listening sessions,” Quipp said, “and also to those who did not share their stories but have nonetheless experienced harm in our town.”

That acknowledgement was the first of the study’s four recommendations. Others included increasing accountability, investing in basic needs, such as food, health and housing, and supporting alternative safety responses that could reduce the presence of police.

“I support the report’s recommendations broadly,” Quipp said, “and I would like to see the selectboard give clear direction to the town manager and relevant staff to begin work immediately to act.”

But the board faces conflict on exactly how. Some residents have called for an immediate large-scale defunding of police, while others have pointed out that the local department, budgeted for 27 officers, is already understaffed at only 20 due to a lack of qualified applicants.

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The report suggests a spending freeze — most specifically on police training — until the town can plan future programs with local minority leaders.

Police want to increase their training budget for the coming fiscal year by 48 percent — from $27,000 to $40,000 — to immediately boost diversity, equity, inclusion and de-escalation skills. That approach is drawing support from one selectboard member.

“Right now, people will continue to call the police if they believe there’s a threat and until a safer alternative is found,” said selectboard member Elizabeth McLoughlin. “We must support this police department with increased training, because I believe that this police department is capable of change.”

McLoughlin also suggested the department hire more social workers — a move discouraged by the committee, which wants more support focused outside the organization.

“When I was listening,” Witzberger said of committee interviews, “people said, ‘Wait, leadership actually needs to decenter their own perspective about what our communities who are not white need, listen to us and give us as nonwhite people more leadership and self-determination.’”

The $40,000 study is based on testimony from about 200 of Brattleboro’s 11,332 residents and from professionals at 25 safety-related organizations. According to census estimates, 93 percent of the town’s residents identify as white, 2.3 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 1.7 percent as Asian and 1.1 percent as Black or African-American.

“Often people, especially on the left, think Brattleboro is a very progressive place with ideals that can rise above some of the evils that exists elsewhere,” Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel said. “The harms from racism are absolutely real, and those harms occur in Brattleboro.”

“It’s a very complex subject,” Wessel continued. “The police are doing the job that we hand them as a community, and if we don’t like the job they’re doing, we’ve got to tell them clearly what their job should be. That’s going to be a little bit of a long process.”

After several hours of discussion, the Selectboard agreed to continue the conversation at its meeting next Tuesday in preparation for approving a municipal budget proposal for the March town meeting.

Members are expected to debate Quipp’s recommendations to start with additional data collection and analysis of racial disparities; release police from routine checks on people’s well-being and from mental health crisis response; replace the current Citizen Police Communications Committee with more encompassing oversight; and invest in law enforcement alternatives.

“I do believe it’s the municipality’s job,” Selectboard member Brandie Starr said, “to focus on public safety, to focus on community safety, to focus on equity. And if that means taking bolder steps or doing things outside of the way it has been done then, so be it.”

“We don’t have solutions right now,” Goodnow said, “but we’re very clear about where we’re moving forward.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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