Crime and Justice

Brattleboro police diversity training budget sparks debate

Brattleboro police at protest
Black Lives Matter protesters march past a Brattleboro police cruiser. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Townspeople are divided about whether and how to spend more money to address their police department’s disproportionately high stopping and searching of minorities.

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

“A few Black respondents named positive or neutral police interactions,” the study says, “but almost all additionally shared negative experiences, fear, experiences of profiling or critiques of policing as a system of danger and not safety.”

A 224-page report authored by committee co-facilitators Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger calls for “acknowledgement” and “accountability” rather than large-scale defunding of an already understaffed department. It specifically suggests a spending freeze on police training until the town can plan future programs with local minority leaders.

“We don’t just want to check off the box that, yes, training happened,” Megas-Russell told the Selectboard upon explaining the study at an online meeting Tuesday night. “It is our recommendation that we slow down and ask, ‘If we’re going to admit and agree and acknowledge that racial bias and discrimination is alive and happening here, what will it take for us to be able to actually adequately address that?’”

However, police want to increase their training budget for the coming fiscal year by 48% — from $27,000 to $40,000 — to immediately boost diversity, equity, inclusion and de-escalation skills. They’re drawing support from one of the committee’s nine citizen members, who is speaking against the proposed pause.

“While I fully support and applaud the efforts of the CSRC facilitators along with the groups and individuals who pushed for this process,” committee member Kelsey Rice wrote in a letter to the Selectboard, “I do not believe all of the recommendations being presented in the report are grounded in a comprehensive review of Brattleboro’s safety needs.”

Rice, describing herself as “a person with lived experience of policing as a survivor of intimate partner violence,” said the police department was her “only viable option to seek safety” and therefore needed training now.

“Police officers have the potential to cause great harm to marginalized people, but I believe police officers also have the potential to be agents of great support as well,” Rice wrote. “It is simply poor employee management to expect employees to adjust to significant changes within their deeply embedded cultural norms while offering no support or incentive to do so.”

Rice credited local police for their recognition and apology for past mistakes in her own case.

“I have witnessed firsthand from the Brattleboro PD a desire to continually evolve and improve in their service to the community,” she wrote. “I hope the town of Brattleboro will provide the Brattleboro PD with the tools and support needed to move policing in this community into a new and better direction.”

The Selectboard, after hearing from the committee and its co-facilitators, said it will respond to the report and its recommendations at its Tuesday meetings all this month before finalizing a municipal budget proposal for consideration at the town meeting March 2.

“Frankly, we all need a little bit of time to digest some of this,” Selectboard Chairman Tim Wessel said.

The town launched the 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 $40,000 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 committee is recommending the town publicly recognize the issues detailed in the report before determining what changes are needed to avoid “business as usual.” It also wants the town to “build up alternatives to policing” — in part by having others handle checks on people’s well-being, mental health and addiction calls, traffic safety and animal control — and invest more in local food, health and housing programs.

“It is critical that we reckon with the harmful impact, however unintended,” Megas-Russell said Tuesday, “and we work towards repairing that.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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