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Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald spoke of what his department is doing to serve the entire community.

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The long arc of justice

Local youth and police commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.

BRATTLEBORO—The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement five decades ago, said Lise Sparrow, pastor of the Guilford Community Church, but the social justice issues he worked for still resonate.

Sparrow views Martin Luther King Day as a time for the community to recommit to issues of social justice.

For almost a decade, Sparrow, along with members of the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Clergy Association, and Mikaela Sims, diversity coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School, have commemorated King through a youth event and fundraiser.

Money raised from admission to the event, held on Jan. 19 at the Centre Congregational Church, goes toward a youth trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Donations made during the event benefited the Root Social Justice Center and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Local youth groups, the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Youth, and the AWARE Multicultural Student Association from BUHS collaborated on preparing the night’s spaghetti dinner.

Many of King’s writings guide Sparrow, such as the quote that accompanied the Guilford church’s event invitation on its website: “Life’s most persistent and urgent questions is, what are you dong for others?”

According to Sparrow, many in the interfaith community regard King as a “modern day prophet” who died for humanity and social justice.

One quote attributed to King that rings as here-and-now for Sparrow is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King paraphrased the quote from writings by the 19th-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.

Social issues are constantly emerging, said Sparrow, who pointed out that King reminds us to each take the actions we can within ourselves and community to improve the world and lift up our neighbors.

With steady effort, the Brattleboro area can become a model as a welcoming and diverse community that lives by principles of social justice, she said.

Urgent issues

Part of the event focused on a discussion with Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and Michael Fitzgerald, Brattleboro police chief, about initiatives to create connections between youth and law enforcement.

Sparrow said building such collaborations takes on new urgency in light of recent violent tragedies against black men in Ferguson, Cleveland, and other cities around the nation.

Youth, law enforcement, and parents, however, can see one another as allies working for a safe, welcoming, and healthy community, said Sparrow.

According to Sparrow, one community tragedy that inspired the annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration and related initiatives happened in 2008.

That spring, a number of white youths at BUHS lashed out at fellow African-American classmates by starting a hate group called the Nigger Hanging Redneck Association (NHRA).

The incidents spurred Sparrow and other youth leaders to build programs that helped young people and the community act toward social justice and maintain a welcoming community for people of color.

“It’s all small, the steps we need to take,” she said.

According to Sparrow, the Brattleboro Police Department has launched a few recent programs to provide officers anti-bias training, build bridges in the community, and work with local youth.

Two such initiatives include Coffee with a Cop and a question-and-answer session with young people.

In Coffee with a Cop, residents and officers get to know one another over coffee, and townspeople have a couple of hours to ask officers questions in the informal setting.

In November, the police department held a question-and-answer session at the Brattleboro Boys & Girls Club with local youth.

Lack of funding slowed down some of the BPD’s other community-building initiatives, said Sparrow.

According to Sparrow, recently-retired Police Chief Gene Wrinn had tried unsuccessfully to get anti-bias training for his officers for a few years. She admits that she had almost completely given up hope that the training would ever happen.

But before he retired last summer, Sparrow said, Wrinn found the funding to get supervising officers training. Incoming Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald has kept the momentum going.

Reed said that citizens usually see their local law enforcement only during a crisis. But for community policing and collaborations to work, police need to build relationships before a crisis occurs.

In communities of color, 450 years of negative interactions with police has built an emotional narrative that police can’t be trusted, Reed said.

Building links

With community policing, “each side gets to understand the humanity of the other,” Reed told host Chris Lenois during an interview on “Green Mountain Mornings” on WKVT Radio on Jan. 19.

Building relationships is a daily, incremental process that includes cops walking a beat, interacting with the community in contexts that do not include reprimands or arrests, said Reed.

The key to anti-biased policing, he added, is preserving the dignity of people of color and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

If a police officer stops a car with four young black males for a burned-out tail light, give them the benefit of the doubt that if the officer tells the men to fix the tail light, they’ll fix the tail light, said Reed — don’t go straight to issuing a ticket.

Believe people of color when they answer an officer’s question rather than make them constantly justify themselves, he added.

Reed said that police officers also need to recognize the diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and backgrounds within non-white communities.

“Law enforcement needs to understand there is a very diverse set of socio-political economic thought in communities of color,” said Reed.

Reed reminded that while police officers hold bias toward members of the community — in race, gender, class — citizens have their own biases.

It’s just as biased to presume that all police are on an ego trip or they’ll shoot first and consider innocence later, he noted.

Citizens need to remember that police have high-stress jobs, do a lot of social work, and “would like to go home at night to their families.”

Reed said that every community will have its one or two percent of “knuckleheads” who resort to criminal behavior no matter what. Community policing, however, can help raise the other 98 percent of the community to the role of allies.

Community policing “elevates law-abiding citizens in keeping their area safe,” he said.

Reed has worked for approximately seven years with the Vermont State Police to train existing and new troopers in anti-biased policing.

The VSP are almost 10 years ahead of other state agencies regarding diversifying its workforce and showing “courageous leadership,” said Reed.

The training has also included revamping the VSP’s recruiting efforts to hire more people of color and women. Supervisors have received training in how to recognize and mitigate hostile working environments.

Efforts have paid off, said Reed. Last year was the first that no female or officers of color left the VSP for other jobs. Referring to the VSP, Reed said, “They’re playing the long game.”

‘It taints all of us’

In an interview with Lenois, Fitzgerald said that when local officers see police and communities clash on the national stage, they cringe.

“It taints all of us, and we cringe because we know we’ll have to deal with the fallout,” said Fitzgerald.

Preventing local fallout is one of many reasons the BPD has stepped up its community policing initiatives.

Community policing in Brattleboro includes three components: community, partnership, and trust, said Fitzgerald.

“You cannot arrest yourself out of problems,” he said.

The BPD meets regularly with local social organizations, community members, and people within the judicial system to develop new methods for meeting the community’s needs.

“We got the protecting part down pat,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to start concentrating on the serving part.”

Fitzgerald said the BPD participates in community-building interactions with youth, such as basketball games, conversations, and other events throughout the school system.

The department wants young people to feel comfortable asking questions about policy and procedure. He hopes that some young people will look to stay in their community and work for the department.

“Success happens when opportunity meets hard work,” said Fitzgerald. “Opportunity is knocking, so let’s get to work.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #289 (Wednesday, January 21, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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