Namaya: A true civilian police review board is the way forward for Brattleboro

This commentary is by Namaya, a poet, artist and peace activist who lives in Brattleboro. He was one of the prime organizers of the Brattleboro Community Police Review Board in 2004 and was part of the initial Restorative Justice Board.

Community police relations is an issue that I have been working on for more than two decades. I was one of the primary organizers for the Brattleboro Civilian Police Review Board initiative that was overwhelmingly endorsed by voters in 2004. 

Even though the voters had approved it, unfortunately the selectboard and town manager created a weakened board that was doomed to fall short of its goals. An effective civilian police review board fosters well-trained, culturally sensitive community policing with professional leadership and active communication with the community. An effective board is pro-community, supportive of police, and creates an ongoing positive dialogue between police and community. 

Furthermore, we must incorporate the invaluable suggestions made by the citizens to improve and strengthen the Brattleboro Police Department.

The department often does a commendable job, and I have personally observed officers interacting with people of diverse backgrounds with skill and sensitivity. Yes, improvement and upgrades to the department are certainly needed, but I would not tar and feather the department with the odious broad brush of racism, as some nonresident agitators have done. This transformation in our police department must come from town residents, not from nonresidents who do not have a genuine long-term commitment to our community.

The department should not be defunded; instead, invest in additional training, and add social workers and mental health professionals. A genuinely viable and independent Brattleboro Civilian Police Review Board would be an immense help in repairing and improving the relationship between the community and the police department. 

Policing and community safety is a complicated job. Often, the police are called to respond to problems that are not within their scope of training, such as mental health issues and domestic disputes. 

In 2001, the Brattleboro Police Department stormed into All Souls Church and killed Robert Woodward with seven bullets. His only weapon was a penknife. Two mental health professionals had calmed Woodward down, and then the police officers, without a plan, burst in and killed Woodward. Two of the cops had long histories of disciplinary problems known to the town, but it had refused to take action against those officers. 

Instead of 26 police officers, the need is for social workers and mental health professionals on staff and on-call. This is a practice that is widespread in police departments around the USA. Currently, the Brattleboro Police Department claims it needs at least 26 police officers (though this staffing level is an arbitrary number). With six vacancies and the funds available, the town can hire mental health and social workers to create healthy community policing. Furthermore, with the recent layoffs from the Brattleboro Retreat, we have many mental health professionals available.

We have long known there is a systemic bias against people of color. Nevertheless, with complete candor: How do the police respond when an African American man sells drugs in the Flat Street or Harmony parking lot? A situation I've personally observed. If the cops bust the drug dealers, they're called racists. If they do nothing, they aren't doing their jobs. 

How do the police respond to the decades-long problems with the drug houses in our town? The drug dealers are white, Black, Latino, men and women. Does Brattleboro turn a blind eye to drug dealing and criminal activities? We want a safe town, but are we willing to hold people to account for illegal behavior? More egregiously, we call the cops racists when they arrest a person of color for selling drugs. 

Do all African Americans and Latinos sell drugs? Of course not. However, we place our police department between a rock and a hard place.

Can Brattleboro choose a chief of police with diverse professional experience and education? To strengthen and improve the police department, the next chief needs to come from outside the community with the requisite master's education level and diverse expertise in policing and create a department with the broadest vision of public safety, a genuine understanding of alternatives to traditional policing, and work with the town on these often intractable issues of drug use, domestic abuse and racism. 

There had been a wealth of insights from community meetings over the past 20 years. I encourage the selectboard to review these documents, which should be in the town manager's office and available to the public. How do we wisely use our police resources? We need leadership at the top that can deliver cost-effective, professional policing, and a civilian police review board that is endorsed by the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Doesn't Brattleboro deserve a police department that is rooted in community safety, prevention and upholds the highest standards of modern policing?

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