BRATTLEBORO—Brandon Lee’s crusade to improve police-community relations is fueled in part by his experiences as a young black man in the Bay area of California.
But it’s also a product of his years at the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro — a place that played a key role in his transformation from “agitator” to advocate, and in the eventual founding of a company promoting a new program of “community conscious policing.”
“This was a place where, not only could I bring my advocacy, but it was nurtured and it was cultivated,” Lee told an audience gathered at the SIT campus on Nov. 15. “The skills that I developed here are the skills that I took out to the real world.”
Training for Transformation, a two-year-old company based in Portland, Oregon, is the brainchild of Lee and his wife, Hun Taing. Both are SIT graduates: Lee earned a master’s degree in teaching, while Taing has a master’s in conflict transformation.
Conflict transformation may be one way to describe the couple’s goal. They try to discover the “shared humanity” between law enforcement and residents via in-depth evaluations and workshops designed to foster mutual understanding and better working relationships.
“We’ve seen town hall meetings, we’ve seen ‘coffee with a cop,’ but we haven’t seen any structured, facilitated training like this,” Lee said.
It’s no coincidence that Training for Transformation was founded in 2014, the same year as the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. The incident sparked waves of protests and a U.S. Department of Justice intervention in that community’s criminal justice system.
“While everything was going negative, it became important for me to say ... ‘There’s got to be someone doing something positive. There’s got to be a police department doing good work,’” Lee said.
That may not have been an easy first reaction from someone who has multiple stories of police run-ins, including one where he was detained for hours — and then released — in front of his family’s home in Oakland, California.
That happened the day before Lee traveled to SIT to begin his graduate work, and it was by no means the first or last such interaction. “I’ve probably been pulled over and engaged with by law enforcement dozens of times — more than 50,” Lee said. “I have no police record, but this was the reality of everyone that I grew up with, coming from where I came from.”
Put simply, he says, “we were targeted.”
It is a persistent, nationwide problem that recently has been documented in Vermont.
Even as officials worked on new “bias-free policing” standards for the state, reports earlier this year showed that minorities were more likely to be stopped, cited, and searched by Vermont State Police.
Also this year, the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department paid $30,000 to settle a case alleging that a deputy had discriminated against a Mexican citizen during a traffic stop.
Multiple police shootings also have made headlines recently. On Nov. 16 — the day after Lee spoke at SIT — a Minnesota police officer was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of a black man during a July traffic stop.
As the violence continues, Training for Transformation administrators lament the “polarization of law enforcement and community members.”
However, Lee and his wife aren’t trying to eliminate racial bias — or any other kind of bias — among law enforcement and other governmental agencies. “I’m sure if we can do that, we would have bottled it up and sold it a long time ago,” Lee said. “We are very real. We know everyone has bias in some way, shape, form, or fashion.”
Lee also emphasizes that he isn’t offering training on specific law enforcement procedures. Rather, he defines his business as “equity focused community building.” The approach is to evaluate an organization, he said, and then work collaboratively with the organization and its host community to fix problems.
“A lot of our work is bringing those together who may not otherwise have come together,” he said.
Not just for police
Training for Transformation’s work began with the police department in Corvallis, Oregon, and extended to the FBI National Academy Associates organization there. Other clients have included the Parks and Recreation office in Portland, Oregon, and Portland Community College.
Those latter two examples show that the company’s work isn’t limited to police departments. “Law enforcement is kind of like our anchor,” Lee said. “From that anchor — because public safety pervades everything — we can branch into education and different organizations.”
But Lee’s focus clearly is on police-community relations.
He sees signs of progress on that front. Restrictions on the use of deadly force and high-speed pursuits are a few examples, as is the growth of citizen oversight for police departments and increasing diversity among police ranks.
But there are “still big voids,” Lee says. He points, for example, to gender bias and a “culture of hyper-masculinity.”
That latter problem “does more to hurt all of us than race and gender bias ever could,” Lee said. “This is a concept we don’t talk enough about in policing.”
While being critical is part of his role, Lee says he has reached a new stage in his police-related work. He’s gone from agitator to advocate, and he now believes he can be an ally to law enforcement.
“My life depends on this work, just like the law enforcement that serves the community,” Lee said.
SIT Diversity Fellow Steffen Gillom said he was inspired by Lee’s presentation and appreciated that it happened a week after the presidential election. At one point, Lee asked attendees to break into small groups and think about what “policing under the Trump administration” might look like.
“I thought the topic was really relevant,” Gillom said. “I thought it was healing for a lot of students to process the Trump election and to show that there are people out there doing great work to bridge that gap.”
Gillom also noted the SIT connection that’s at the backbone of Training for Transformation. “It shows what can happen when students here become colleagues ... the force that they can become,” he said.