Crime and Justice

Brattleboro study finds town police overly target minorities

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

BRATTLEBORO — One of the state’s most politically progressive towns is among “the worst” for disproportionately policing minorities, according to a new study that calls for “acknowledgement” and “accountability” rather than large-scale defunding of an already understaffed police department.

Local police, for example, stop Black drivers up to 60% more often relative to their small share of the population even though they’re likelier to find contraband on white drivers, the municipally sponsored Community Safety Review Committee discovered as detailed in a 224-page report.

“They had no liable cause to search the car other than we are brown, so they assumed he was selling drugs or something,” one unnamed resident told the committee. “Every single Black man I know in this town has experienced racial profiling.”

The $40,000 study, set for selectboard consideration Tuesday night, took testimony from some 200 residents as well as professionals from 25 safety-related organizations in a town that held weekly Black Lives Matter protests for months and voted for President-elect Joe Biden by more than 80%.

“Folks who had minimal interaction with police felt that their experiences were mostly polite and appropriate,” committee co-facilitators Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger write in the report. “Our review demonstrates that racial disparities are a real part of the safety response system in our town.”

Of the 11,332 Brattleboro residents in Vermont’s seventh-largest community, 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.

In comparison, 17% of recent Brattleboro police “use of force” cases involved Black people, while the town recorded more stops of Black drivers than the number of Black residents over age 15.

“Respondents shared, in detail, many, many accounts of unequal treatment, dishonesty, antagonism, violence, assault, profiling and punishment for speaking up and attempting to make change,” the report says. “Respondents often felt unable to safely call for police support in an emergency due to these experiences.”

The committee, tapping a recent study by the University of Vermont and Cornell University, noted Black drivers are 4.8 times more likely to be arrested and nine times more likely to be searched than white drivers, even though contraband was found in only 0.1% of all stops.

“The biggest threat to my community’s safety is law enforcement,” one Black resident told the committee.

Addiction and mental health care also top list

The committee also heard from residents concerned that the town — the first Vermont exit off Interstate 91 and the nearest Vermont community to the New England drug-route hubs of greater Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut — too often makes news for a record number of opioid overdoses.

“The drug issue here needs to be rectified,” one of the residents said. “When I first moved here, people could leave their doors unlocked and feel safe in their homes and community. Whereas now that doesn’t seem like the community we live in at all anymore. There is heroin everywhere.”

Police, the report says, are torn between townspeople who want a crackdown and those advocating for safe injection sites and free supplies.

“Many white people named that policing is ineffective around drug use and the problems they associate with it, whether they supported more aggressive policing around drug use or limiting the reach of policing in solving an addiction crisis rooted in trauma, poverty or lack of belonging,” the authors of the report wrote.

The committee, appointed to review the use of municipal government resources “to ensure equitable and optimal community health, wellness and safety,” also included Brattleboro crisis responders and related care workers in the report.

That, in turn, drew complaints about the local health care system and, specifically, the Brattleboro Retreat, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s emergency department.

“Some respondents named their experiences in the local mental health system as torture, particularly around experiences of coercion, forced drugging, restraint, seclusion and use of force or violence,” the report says. “Being punished for noncompliance in totally noncriminal situations, enforcement of mental health warrants, and other carceral responses to nonconsensus beliefs or extreme or altered states were described by one respondent as the functional criminalization of mental illness.”

One affected resident said: “Our experiences often happen behind closed doors. We aren’t even allowed to have our phones to record it. So it’s hard for people to see what happens to us.”

Another said: “Our needs for safety are not being discussed — instead it’s about how the community needs safety from us.”

The town launched the study last summer when some residents, spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of Minnesotan George Floyd, called for defunding the Brattleboro department.

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.

Black Lives Matter protesters march through downtown Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

After four months of meetings, the committee, coming full circle, received the most complaints about race.

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

The committee said while some residents view police through specific local experiences, “some people-of-color respondents shared about violent or abusive experiences with police elsewhere impacting their relationship to policing in Brattleboro.”

Call for acknowledgement and accountability

The idea of immediate defunding isn’t simple, the study found. The local department, budgeted for 27 officers, currently has only 20 because of a lack of qualified applicants, leading to problems covering shifts.

Police have pursued diversity training and provided all requested paperwork for the study, the report noted. It added local racial problems aren’t limited to the department, with one Black respondent pointing out “‘well intentioned’ white-led nonprofits making decisions on behalf of people they have no relationship to and know nothing about."

As a result, 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.”

“Accountability work cannot begin without first acknowledging the harms that are caused,” it says.

A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

For example, police have proposed a 48% budget increase for diversity and de-escalation training. But the committee wants the department to instead focus on effective and efficient use of current funds while planning future spending in consultation with local minority leaders.

The report also recommends the town improve data collection and analysis, replace the current Citizen Police Communications Committee with more encompassing oversight, and retire programs such as “Coffee with a Cop.”

“The best way to improve community relations is to focus on acknowledging, reducing and eliminating harm,” it says.

Looking at the larger picture, the committee says the town should “build up alternatives to policing” — in part by having others take care of checks on an individual’s well-being, mental health and addiction calls, traffic safety and animal control — and invest more in local food, health and housing programs.

“Consistently,” it says, “poverty, homelessness, lack of belonging and lack of ability to meet basic needs were named as some of the largest threats to our community’s well-being and safety.”

The committee noted many local residents currently working in public safety understand the challenge.

“Our systems do not function effectively,” one insider told the committee. “Jail is a core part of the system but after millennia of civilization, one would think we would have developed better solutions to violence and disregard for the safety of others. Vermont’s mental health care system and the intersection between that system and the criminal justice system are totally broken. Substance abuse should be addressed as a treatment rather than a criminal justice issue.”

Police, for their part, have acknowledged their role.

“Make no mistake, there are things we can do better, there are things we’re working on, there are things that I don’t even know yet that we need to do,” outgoing Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said last year at a public meeting on the town common.

The committee is set to detail its report and recommendations to the selectboard on Tuesday for consideration as local leaders prepare a municipal budget proposal for March town meeting.

“It would be a great disservice,” the study says, “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.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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