Crime and Justice

Brattleboro citizen police committee attracts new attention

Brattleboro police
Brattleboro’s Citizen Police Communications Committee has scrutinized town law enforcement for more than a decade. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Amid public clamor for a review of law enforcement in the era of Black Lives Matter, this town’s Citizen Police Communications Committee is responding with a reminder: It has scrutinized the local force for more than a decade.

Municipal leaders and social justice advocates, spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of Black resident George Floyd, have spent two months debating how to study community safety in this southeastern Vermont hub of 11,000 people. What many don’t realize is the citizen committee has received and responded to dozens of public concerns about the Brattleboro Police Department since 2009.

“Most people in town don’t even know we exist,” Chair Leesette Bengar says. “It’s one of those committees that, if somebody doesn’t look for it, they probably don’t know about it.”

The role of the five-member committee is to “facilitate mutually respectful communication” between residents and police on questions about procedures, according to its charge.

Of the 50,000 incidents the Brattleboro Police Department has responded to in the past five years, the municipally sponsored yet independent committee has received and reviewed 60 public grievances, town reports and meeting minutes reveal.

In 2016, the committee received 20 complaints that required investigation, with the most serious claiming excessive use of force (the officer was exonerated) and a majority of the rest charging rude or unprofessional conduct.

In 2017, it received 12 complaints, with no charges of excessive force.

In 2018, it received 13 complaints, with one alleging excessive force and two alleging racial bias.

In 2019, it received 14 complaints and, so far in 2020, it has reviewed eight complaints.

Most of the public paperwork about the grievances limit details to protect the privacy of complainants and, in some cases, personnel. But one case discussed at this month’s committee meeting demonstrated that what initially can seem cut and dried is often complicated.

In the complaint, a man who reported his estranged wife and child were missing after a court awarded him sole custody alleged police didn’t inform him when the two were found.

Investigating, the committee found that police didn’t tell the man — but only because he faced charges of sexually abusing the child.

The committee has sparked only one headline during its decade of monthly meetings. That came in 2012, when an officer used a shotgun to kill a sick-looking pit bull in front of startled neighbors at a school playground.

“These police officers need to hear these feelings,” one complainant said, “so maybe they operate a little differently next time.”

Local leaders agreed.

“We screwed up,” then-Police Chief Gene Wrinn responded, “and we’re going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Although residents file most of the concerns investigated, as many as 30% have come from supervisors within the police department seeking an independent review. A number of those grievances have led to orders for training or disciplinary action — the latter deemed personnel matters and not detailed further.

The committee has watched this summer as social justice advocates, inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, have pushed for a larger study of community safety with a professional facilitator and citizen panel of marginalized residents. The town is seeking applications from interested participants until Sept. 8.

“It just doesn’t seem like they really want our input,” committee member Bruce Sweeter says.

The committee nonetheless will invite local leaders to its September meeting to discuss the situation.

“Where do we fit in?” says Gary Stroud, the sole committee member of color. “I’d like to see everybody come together.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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