Crime and Justice

Brattleboro police review set for release and public debate

A sign in downtown Brattleboro promotes community safety. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Town government’s Community Safety Review Committee is set to release a more than 100-page report this new year that is expected to detail a deep divide in how locals view police.

“Our job was to say, ‘What do the people who have experienced harm want out of a safer community?’” co-facilitator Shea Witzberger said at a recent committee meeting. “We got that, we got so much of that.”

The $40,000 effort — spurred by this year’s Minneapolis police killing of Black Minnesotan George Floyd — is tapping into public and private testimony as well as data that shows local people of color disproportionately face more traffic stops and use of force.

“The data is in response to the question, ‘What does policing look like in Brattleboro right now?’” co-facilitator Emily Megas-Russell said. “The question we are embarking on asking as a community is, ‘What should policing look like?’”

The nine-member citizens committee — which includes representatives of color, from the LGBTQ spectrum, of lower income and with addiction or psychiatric challenges — has focused on reaching out to marginalized populations.

“We tried to make this really broad, but we can’t pretend this is a randomized cross section of the community,” Witzberger said. “The people who spoke with us are disproportionately impacted by these systems.”

“Accountability can’t really start until you acknowledge the harm,” Witzberger continued. “People are saying, ‘It’s not working for us, we are not being treated fairly, the law is not being used equally and I don’t trust white people who want to make change because nobody’s doing anything about it.’”

The committee, appointed by the Selectboard to review the use of municipal government resources “to ensure equitable and optimal community health, wellness and safety,” isn’t limiting its efforts to law enforcement but also is including other Brattleboro crisis responders and related care workers.

The Selectboard is scheduled to receive and respond to the committee’s report and recommendations at its meeting next Tuesday, Jan. 5, with follow-up discussions expected weekly until local leaders set a proposed 2021-22 budget Jan. 26 for a town meeting vote in March.

“I hope we can strike the balance,” Witzberger said of the coming report, “between recommendations that hopefully are specific yet open enough that people can do what works.”

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