BRATTLEBORO — Six months after acknowledging problems with how town police and public safety professionals treat marginalized populations, municipal leaders are working to recruit a more diverse staff and review procedures for how crisis responders deal with people facing mental health issues.
The town has started, officials said, with the recent hiring of Norma Hardy, Vermont’s first Black female police chief and a former officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“In Chief Hardy, we have brought onto our team exactly what we sought: someone who can provide traditional law enforcement leadership in addressing criminal activity here and be a partner with the community in identifying and seizing opportunities to deemphasize law enforcement in favor of civilian supports where possible,” Town Manager Peter Elwell told the selectboard in a progress report Tuesday.
A municipally sponsored Community Safety Review Committee — spurred by last year’s Minneapolis police killing of Black Minnesotan George Floyd — found one of Vermont’s most politically progressive towns is among “the worst” for disproportionately stopping and searching people of color.
“A few Black respondents named positive or neutral police interactions,” the committee’s co-facilitators said in their findings, “but almost all additionally shared negative experiences, fear, experiences of profiling or critiques of policing as a system of danger and not safety.”
The $40,000 study, which took testimony from about 200 residents as well as professionals from 25 safety-related organizations, also found concerns about how Brattleboro crisis responders have dealt with people from the LGBTQ+ community, of lower income, or facing addiction or psychiatric challenges.
“It would be a great disservice,” the findings said, “and cause further harm to those who so bravely and vulnerably shared their stories, many of which invoke deep pain, fear and trauma, for this review process not to materialize actual change.”
In his report Tuesday, Elwell noted that town government had fulfilled the first of some 40 study recommendations by acknowledging past problems.
“We commit ourselves to an ongoing process of reckoning with the harm caused by existing systems in Brattleboro and with our roles and actions within those systems,” the town manager said. “We further commit ourselves to approaching this work and future corrective actions with humility and reflection in collaboration with individuals and groups who have been negatively impacted by these systems.”
Town government, aiming to diversify its staff, no longer is requiring certain educational degrees or a minimum number of years of experience when advertising vacancies.
“Instead, we describe the work to be done and the skills and abilities we are seeking,” Elwell said, “leaving it to each individual applicant to demonstrate to us that they are the best qualified person for the job.”
The town also is reaching out to women and members of the BIPOC, Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities.
“The result has been consistently broader and deeper applicant pools,” Elwell said, “and we are finding that some of our best candidates are coming on nontraditional paths.”
The new system helped attract Hardy, who began work in July after winning approval from a community interview committee.
“Chief Hardy was the only applicant who received positive comments from every reviewer,” Elwell said.
Hardy, noting she was just getting to know local police and the public, limited her comments Tuesday.
“I came here because I think I can open up conversations in a respectful manner that maybe people haven’t been able to have before,” she said.
But the community safety review already has brought change. The town is “consciously employing less police intervention” with people who are homeless, Elwell said, either by letting people stay longer in certain public spaces or using other responders to offer support. It also has recommitted to maintaining a separation between municipal officers and international border patrol and immigration enforcement.
For future work, the town will study the possibility of crisis intervention teams featuring mental health professionals to assist with nonviolent situations. It’s set to replace its current data collection system to allow better access, analysis and accountability of police records. And it will offer a second progress report in December as leaders draft a budget for next year’s town meeting.
In response, representatives of the Community Safety Review Committee offered thanks — and a promise they’d continue to speak out.
“I want to share some gratitude for all of the labor that you’ve done,” committee co-facilitator Shea Witzberger told local leaders. “And I’m sure I’ll be seeing you in many future conversations as the work continues.”
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