Crime and Justice

Brattleboro safety study reveals ‘chasm’ in local views of police

Brattleboro police
The front door of the Brattleboro Police Department headquarters on Black Mountain Road. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Town government’s new Community Safety Review Committee isn’t scheduled to release its findings until Dec. 31, but the advisory group is already reporting a deep divide in how locals view police.

“There’s a huge diversity of experience,” co-facilitator Shea Witzberger said at the committee’s most recent meeting, “including people who’ve shared really directly, ‘I was looking at death and I begged for the police not to be called.’”

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 a 2020 study that reveals, while Brattleboro traffic stops have fallen in the past five years by almost 9%, those involving Black people are up 129%, even though contraband was less likely to be found.

“This is some very strong data,” co-facilitator Emily Megas-Russell said, “and we are going to be centering some of that in our report.”

Locals spent the entire summer debating how to create the committee in a way that’s fair to both people calling for police defunding and others who want more from the department, which faced a capacity crowd just before the pandemic seeking an end to a 411% spike in drug-related vehicle break-ins in a town with an often record number of opioid overdoses.

Police, in response, are talking up improvement initiatives such as their Project CARE partnership with other local addiction responders as well as more diversity training.

“We have policies prohibiting any form of profiling,” Chief Michael Fitzgerald recently told the Brattleboro Selectboard.

But the committee has gathered evidence that many townspeople in marginalized populations feel targeted. Take the recent study “Trends in Racial Disparities in Traffic Stops: Brattleboro, Vermont 2014-19,” which the University of Vermont and Cornell University conducted after the state required all law enforcement agencies to adopt policies supporting fair and impartial policing.

Although Black people were only 3% of all Brattleboro drivers stopped, they were significantly more likely to be searched or investigated for “suspicious” behavior, even though they were less likely to be found with contraband than white drivers.

“This concerning finding coexists with some other positive aspects of Brattleboro’s policing,” the study concluded. The town police department “has used race data in traffic policing as a management tool and as a means to make officers conscious of these disparities … a process that may take time to bear fruit.”

The committee hopes the statistics will prompt the rest of the community to reflect.

“While I do appreciate and recognize that the department has done a lot in recent years to address and focus on implicit bias and diversity and equity training,” Megas-Russell said, “the question still begs to be asked about how effective that training has been when we look at outcomes around racial disparities.”

The committee also has listened to mental health advocates voice concerns about how police respond to emergency calls — a fact law enforcement leaders have acknowledged can be a challenge.

“Although we may play a role in the safe resolution of the crisis, we should not be the primary responders,” Fitzgerald said. “Conversations are long overdue with mental health clinicians, emergency room personnel, law enforcement, the community, elected officials at both the state and federal level and, most importantly, those who have experienced firsthand the horrors of this gross injustice.”

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. It’s also including other Brattleboro crisis responders and related care workers.

The nine-member group — which includes representatives of color, from the LGBTQ community, of lower income and with addiction or psychiatric challenges — will finish its work during weekly online meetings in December, with more information available at the town’s website and related Facebook page.

“We’re at a chasm,” Megas-Russell said. “As a committee and as a community, it’s our responsibility to stand at that edge of that precipice together and ask ourselves, ‘How do we look at this question of community safety from a place that includes every person’s sense of it?’”

The committee will develop recommendations by Dec. 31 for consideration by the selectboard as it drafts a municipal budget for the next fiscal year.

“We have a higher burden of proof,” Witzberger said, “which makes sense because we are advocating for some things to change.”

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