Crime and Justice

Brattleboro to freeze and refocus its police diversity training budget

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

BRATTLEBORO — In a split decision, the Brattleboro Selectboard has voted to freeze its police diversity training budget. It wants to consult local marginalized populations before spending more money to address law enforcement’s disproportionately high rate of stopping and searching minorities.

“A really logical question is, ‘Why would you take funding away from something like training if you’re trying to improve it?’” Selectman Ian Goodnow said at an online meeting Tuesday. “I don’t want to increase funding on something that’s not working.”

A new study by the advisory Community Safety Review Committee has found the town police department is “about the worst” in the state for targeting people of color, stopping Black drivers up to 60% more relative to their small local population and searching them nine times more than white drivers, even though contraband was found in only 0.1% of all incidents.

The co-facilitators of the $40,000 study and its resulting 224-page report have suggested Vermont’s seventh-largest municipality freeze police spending — most specifically on training — until the department can plan future programs with local minority leaders.

“This set of recommendations did not ask for any kind of wholesale defunding of the police, even though many, many marginalized people wanted that,” committee co-facilitator Shea Witzberger said of an already understaffed police department. “What did seem possible was level-funding. You have an opportunity to do that — to listen and sit, pause and acknowledge what is being asked.”

Police, however, have wanted to immediately increase their training budget for the coming fiscal year by 48% — from $27,000 to $40,000 — to boost diversity, equity, inclusion and de-escalation efforts.

“Awareness is one thing, but actually making sure that we have the skills and tools to be treating people properly and not making bad decisions on the street is important,” interim police chief Mark Carignan told local leaders. “Multiple sessions of this type of training are going to cost more money.”

The interim chief agreed with a study recommendation that police consult local people who have “lived experience,” prompting board members to consider several proposed compromises.

“This is super complicated,” Selectman Daniel Quipp said. “On one hand, it is a litmus test about whether or not we take this report seriously. On the other hand, it’s a question of do we believe that people can develop and grow.”

Ultimately, Quipp and fellow members Goodnow and Brandie Starr voted to level-fund the training budget to allow time for contemplation, while Selectboard Chairman Tim Wessel and colleague Elizabeth McLoughlin sought some sort of immediate increase.

“My feeling,” Starr said, “to take a step back and level-fund while we figure out the new direction has absolutely nothing to do with me wanting to punish the police department or not liking them or having faith.”

The town launched its safety study last summer when some residents, spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of Minnesotan George Floyd, called for defunding a Brattleboro department that, budgeted for 27 officers, currently has only 20 because of a lack of qualified applicants.

Local leaders instead appointed the nine-member committee — which includes representatives of color, from the LGBTQ community, of lower income and with addiction or psychiatric challenges — to review the use of municipal government resources “to ensure equitable and optimal community health, wellness and safety.”

The study is based on testimony from some 200 of Brattleboro’s 11,332 residents, as well as professionals from 25 safety-related organizations in a town where 93% identify as white, 2.3% as Hispanic or Latino, 1.7% as Asian and 1.1% as Black or African-American, according to census estimates.

The resulting report recommends increasing acknowledgement of problems and accountability for solutions, investing in basic needs such as food, health and housing, and supporting alternative safety responses that would reduce police presence.

The selectboard went on Tuesday to ask Town Manager Peter Elwell and staff to assess how the municipality can move forward with the report’s calls for change. Members are expected to discuss next steps at a yet-to-be-set meeting in February or early March.

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Kevin O'Connor

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