BRATTLEBORO—People sat at long tables along the Whetstone Pathway last Friday, their plates piled with hamburgers, hot dogs, or veggie burgers.
With the noontime sun hot on their shoulders, they chatted easily with each other and with the police officers passing out food.
“Who doesn’t have a good time at a barbecue?” said a happy Chief Michael Fitzgerald.
The Brattleboro Police Department (BPD) hosted the free community meal June 24. Approximately 11 officers helped cook and pass out almost 400 hamburgers and veggie burgers, and more than 300 hot dogs.
Fitzgerald and Capt. Mark Carignan, who both ran the grill, said people stopped to chat with officers and thank them for their service, and a few asked questions.
People from across the community attended, Fizgerald said, “and that’s what [the cookout] is for.”
Similar to the department’s “Coffee with a Cop” events, the cookout is of a piece with the BPD’s community-policing philosophy. This philosophy focuses, in part, on building relationships between the department and the community it serves.
Most citizen interactions with police happen during times of strife, struggle, or just plain annoyance, officers at the meal said.
For the cookout, BPD officers donned shirts with their names embroidered on them, rather than their full uniforms.
“It’s not that ‘pow’ in your face,” said Fitzgerald of his staff’s dressed-down look.
Events like this allow officers and citizens to interact in a nonconfrontational environment, Fitzgerald said.
The chief hopes to make the community meal an annual event. He said Hannaford Supermarket, Triple T Trucking, C&S Wholesale Grocers, and Rentals Plus party planning and supplies donated food, supplies, and other help to make the cookout possible.
The meal also served as a fundraiser for the Women’s Freedom Center, an advocacy organization that supports survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
Guests were invited to leave a donation, Fitzgerald said.
Donna, the Freedom Center’s legal justice advocate, expressed gratitude for the BPD’s efforts to make the center’s work more visible.
The BPD and Freedom Center have had a long history of partnering on cases and issues involving domestic or sexual violence.
“Kudos to the Brattleboro Police Department,” Donna said. The department wants to create a culture where it serves and protects first and prosecutes last, she said. Referencing the words of BPD officers — and echoing the language of a federally sponsored community-policing training program — Donna said the department wants to be “more of a guardian than a warrior.”
Shari, the center’s community outreach advocate, echoed Donna’s gratitude. (Both asked that they be identified only by their first names as a matter of safety for themselves and their clients.)
The Freedom Center is unique, Shari added. It plays a tandem role: spotlighting domestic violence and protecting the safety and confidentiality of survivors seeking services.
Events like this also highlight the center’s need for funding, Shari said.
All survivors are helped when the wider community has a high awareness around domestic or sexual violence, Shari said. For many survivors the Freedom Center isn’t their first stop, she continued. Their first stop is often friends or family.
Shari and Donna stressed that the Freedom Center staff operate from an assumption that survivors are the experts on their situations, their needs, and their next steps.
“We meet survivors where they are,” Shari said, adding that the center operates with total confidentiality.
Some survivors come from situations that might be hard to discuss, such as addiction or the sex industry, Shari and Donna said; the more a survivor can open up to staff, the better staff can help with safety planning.
Donna said the center has an awareness that domestic and sexual violence mostly affect women. But, she continued, the center is also aware that men and people in the transgender community also experience domestic or sexual violence.
The center works in service to everyone, Donna said.
Det. Lt. Jeremy Evans said he enjoyed the event.
“I’m the napkin carrier,” he joked, adding that he enjoyed the opportunity to meet residents in a relaxed setting.
Evans said he sat with three women for 10 minutes, just chatting about community issues.
The main goal of the day was building relationships, he said.
In Evans’ opinion, communities with violence by police or against police are communities without relationships between law enforcement and citizens.