Crime and Justice

A year after costly public safety review, Brattleboro still divided on local police

A Brattleboro police cruiser sits in front of the local union high school the day graffiti threats of “killing you all” spurred more than half of the student body to stay home on Oct. 8. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — On one side: The resident who, reporting several home break-ins, wants more from the town’s police.

“I sleep with a tire iron next to my bed,” she recently told municipal leaders. “I live on my own, and I’m scared.”

On the other: The fellow local who wants less.

“Regardless of how many cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical or white people have been taught to consider that they can rely on police as a form of safety and support,” she said in response, “that is not the same for almost any other demographic.”

In between: The Brattleboro Police Department and its new chief, Norma Hardy, the first Black woman to hold the post not only locally but also statewide.

“My job is to try to work with all members in the community,” the chief said, “and that has become very hard.”

A year after spending $40,000 to study local safety, Brattleboro remains divided over how to direct its municipal police.

Just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, some residents sought a crackdown on a 411% spike in drug-related vehicle break-ins in a town with an often record number of opioid overdoses.

Then, after a Minneapolis police officer murdered Black Minnesotan George Floyd, Brattleboro activists called for a community safety review that found one of the state’s most politically progressive towns is among “the worst” for disproportionately policing people from marginalized populations.

The 224-page report called for “acknowledgement,” “accountability” and alternatives, especially when responding to people with mental health challenges. A year later, local leaders are trying to implement many of the study’s 40 recommendations.

“We’re working on trying to find better ways to be a safer community that are separate and apart from the recognized necessity for the police department to provide good law enforcement,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said this month.

To start, Brattleboro is establishing a new community safety fund to pay for crisis response alternatives, using up to $300,000 in unspent municipal law enforcement money.

The town police department, budgeted for 27 positions, currently has only 18 people working — two-thirds its full complement — because of a lack of qualified applicants.

As a result, local leaders will tap a $200,000 budget surplus caused by the officer shortage this fiscal year and potentially add $100,000 more in 2022 to fund efforts that will be decided at later public meetings.

In the meantime, the department has reduced its daily patrols from three shifts to two, leading officers to work mostly in person but sometimes while on call at home. 

Even with the changes, not all residents are satisfied. Some, for example, have complained about the sight of armed, uniformed police at community events. Since then, Hardy often has appeared in public in plainclothes with her gun hidden — a move that’s sparking new questions among critics.

“In nature, animals have bright colors so you can tell who’s dangerous,” resident Jackson Stein told local leaders. “I don’t understand how setting the precedent of plainclothes cops concealed-carrying in public spaces increases safety.”

The Brattleboro Selectboard, hearing out a half-dozen other residents during a three-hour meeting on the subject this week, promised to schedule another update in the spring.

Said the police chief: “I have people who want my help, who ask for my help, and people who feel harm, who feel fear of us. It’s a very, very thin line to walk. I would like for the department to be a part of the community, and I would like the community to feel that we are their department.”

And the town manager: “We’re making progress, but there’s still a lot more to be done.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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