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Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald talks with SIT students Stephanie McCreary, Denise Leinonen, and Noumoussara Diallo at a Feb. 16 forum.

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‘I represent the community’

Brattleboro police chief talks policing with students at SIT forum

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald acknowledged neither he nor his officers spend much time on the World Learning/School for International Training campus.

But, on a recent evening, he told a group of students and staff he planned to visit again soon.

Fitzgerald was there at the request of Chief Diversity Officer Michelle Cromwell, who asked him to talk about law-enforcement in the community, and to provide an opportunity for students and staff to ask questions about what his officers do — and don’t do.

In inviting the attendees to ask him anything, Fitzgerald said, “I’ve got a pretty thick skin,” and, “we may disagree, but we can talk.”

Most attendees agreed this should be the first of many public forums.

The timing is right, especially for the SIT population, many of whom are people of color and international students here on visas.

The questions many attendees asked Fitzgerald centered on a theme: How do the Brattleboro Police Department’s policies and conduct address — or fail to address — issues related to their identity and experience?

Fitzgerald spent about an hour introducing himself and explaining how he runs his department.

When the Brattleboro native and retired Marine gunnery sergeant became chief of the Brattleboro force, he said, he realized “now I [could] make the police department the way I want, something to be proud of.”

Cromwell explained she was wearing “two hats” in convening the meeting: as a school official who wants to build a positive relationship with the police department, and “as the mother of a young black man,” she said.

Addressing bias in policing

SIT Assistant Dean of Students Steve Sweet asked Fitzgerald, “What are your thoughts on bias in policing?”

“We have a six-page policy on implicit bias,” Fitzgerald replied, adding that he provides related officer training, usually by enlisting outside experts such as Curtiss Reed Jr. and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

Fitzgerald pointed out the challenge in “sitting down with smart, good-hearted men and women, and talking about biases.”

“Am I a breath away from putting a sheet over my head” and joining the KKK? he said. Emphatically not. But, Fitzgerald noted, everyone has biases. “Where it’s wrong is if you let those biases affect how you police.”

One of the tools the chief uses to help the Brattleboro Police Department serve the community is what Fitzgerald calls “the best paper I’ve ever read” on law-enforcement: the “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”

Commissioned by President Barack Obama, the task force issued “best policies and practices” related to law-enforcement, profiling, and other policing issues, Fitzgerald said.

He implemented many aspects of it in his work with the BPD, such as the “six pillars” of law-enforcement, with the first being “building trust and legitimacy.”

Student and Black Lives Matter campaigner Folake Oyegbola asked Fitzgerald to comment on the Fraternal Order of Police’s request to President Trump to revoke the report’s policies and increase the militarization and weaponization of the police.

“I can’t speak for the Fraternal Order of Police, but Obama’s 21st Century Policing is a good idea. It’s common sense. And it doesn’t matter which party you’re in. I’m going for it 110 percent and I’m expanding on it,” Fitzgerald said.

“The Fraternal Order of Police can say they don’t want it, but they’re not the Brattleboro Police Department,” he said, adding “the community doesn’t want” an increase in police militarization. “A decision of that magnitude shouldn’t be made in a silo, by one person.”

“Our policies must reflect the values of the community, and our strategies should reduce crime by creating community relationships,” Fitzgerald said.

Reaching out

Fitzgerald mentioned some of the department’s community-based programs, like Coffee with a Cop, a thrice-yearly event where officers spend time at a cafe and informally chat with anyone who shows up, and “Bigs in Blue,” which pairs officers with a child for weekly lunch dates at school.

“We work with the youth in a positive environment,” Fitzgerald said.

“For far too long, the police treated people as a criminal or not, one or the other... [But], three-quarters of the calls we go to have nothing to do with crime,” said Fitzgerald, noting they are about panhandling, quality-of-life issues, neighbor disputes, mental health calls, and homeless people “with nowhere to go at night.”

“People need our help. They make bad decisions. Are they criminals? We have to know the difference,” he said.

“A top priority of mine is to incorporate de-escalation techniques” in training, policies, and the department’s culture, Fitzgerald said.

“If you train an officer that he only has two options — shoot or don’t shoot — what are you doing? You’re setting up some bad situations if she or he is always afraid for their lives,” he said.

“I just want you to know, you’re blowing my mind right now,” Oyegbola said, laughing.

Fitzgerald mentioned the “sixth pillar” of the president’s report: Officer Wellness & Safety.

“It is not a sign of weakness to say, ‘I need help,’” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a sign of strength to walk into the chief’s office and say, ‘I need help,’” because of PTSD or other issues facing those who “see things people shouldn’t see on a regular basis,” he said.

Steffen Gillom, a diversity fellow at SIT, asked Fitzgerald, “What can we do for you?”

“Treat people [including officers] the same way you’d want to be treated. That’s what I tell my officers,” he said.

The chief noted he doesn’t often get asked that question.

“How can we humanize each other if I don’t ask you this question?” Gillom said to Fitzgerald.

National issues

Dean of Students Michael Smallis asked Fitzgerald how he sees the SIT community.

“Many national issues affect our campus, our students, our staff. What’s the plan? How will you reach out? I want to have that good town/gown relationship,” Smallis said.

Student Noumoussara Diallo, who is also vice president of the campus International Students group, expressed similar concerns. “What’s happening outside of Brattleboro affects here,” he said, asking the police department’s role in enforcing immigration laws.

“Are you taking orders from someone else?” Diallo asked.

“I’d fall back on the community to help me with that,” Fitzgerald said. “Nothing has changed. That’s not part of policing,” he said.

Fitzgerald then stated: “I can’t prove to anyone right now that I’m a U.S. citizen. I cannot right now prove that I’m here legally.”

For example, one doesn’t have to be a permanent resident to get a driver’s license, he pointed out.

If the Brattleboro Police pulled someone over and they couldn’t produce a driver’s license, “that’s not a crime. It’s a civil violation. If that happens, I’ll take your name and send you along.”

“What’s inherently wrong is if I go any further because of your dress, your accent, the color of your skin,” Fitzgerald said. “I represent the community. I reflect those values.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #396 (Wednesday, February 22, 2017).

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