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Police chief, officials pressed on abolition, defunding

With a national movement for police reform gaining momentum, the Brattleboro Selectboard narrowly approves a town budget with full police funding, and the police chief opens a microphone to an audience with many activists determined to send a message. Still unclear is what is coming next.

This story incorporates the reporting of VTDigger.com’s Kevin O’Connor with updates from Jeff Potter and Olga Peters of The Commons.

BRATTLEBORO—The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer has immediately proved to be a tipping point, with a number of consequences ranging from demonstrations to a broader national conversation about law enforcement, its history, and its culture.

The brazen killing of Floyd in Minneapolis in May— an act documented on videotape that was only the latest in a string of deaths of people of color by police — has catapulted the issues of race and racism in law enforcement into the public eye.

Activists who agree that the institution of police and policing needs reform have split into two camps, with some seeking to “defund the police” by diverting current funding from policing to agencies that help address community problems more proactively.

In contrast, some activists seek to dismantle, or abolish, the entire institution of policing, citing the origins of modern policing in slavery. Critics also point out the influence of police unions on defending personnel who are accused of brutality and protecting them from consequences of their misdeeds.

The discussion has filtered to the local level, with the Selectboard narrowly approving a budget that will retain law enforcement’s 2020-21 spending plan as they review whether to make future changes, despite calls from racial justice activists to defund police.

Along with the funding comes what Selectboard member Daniel Quipp described the next day in a Facebook post as “a commitment to begin an inclusive, thorough and welcoming process to look at the work and funding of the police department.”

And meanwhile, activists at a community forum with Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald the next night vowed to continue working for abolition.

Selectboard approves budget, citing ‘11th hour’

Local leaders had hoped to hold Annual Representative Town Meeting before July 1, but found themselves unable to schedule one because of COVID-19 crowd size and safety guidelines. The meeting was originally set for March but postponed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the board took advantage of a temporary state act that allows them to adopt a budget to ensure government operations continue.

With the fiscal year drawing to a close on June 30, the timing proved less than optimal for reopening debate about the police budget at the board’s June 16 online meeting.

“The targeting of our police budget without a full examination of all of our town’s priorities is ill-informed, unwise and antidemocratic,” Selectboard Chairman Tim Wessel said.

“While I have the utmost respect for the principles behind movements that seek to make policing better and to reorganize how we as a society take care of our more vulnerable citizens,” Wessel continued, “I cannot toss out a well-vetted budget from this very board here in order to make what will only be a symbolic gesture.”

More than two dozen residents logged onto the meeting to demand that police money be reallocated for human services.

“While we like to think of Brattleboro and Vermont in general as an oasis of forward thinking, the fact remains that racism is everywhere, including here,” said Zoe Cunningham-Cook, who identified herself as a light-skinned Black resident. “We need to dismantle this racist system entirely, and that starts with defunding the Brattleboro Police Department.”

Many fellow activists said they were abolitionists who supported #8toAbolition, a national campaign that advances eight goals that seek to end police, prisons, and laws that “criminalize survival” in favor of housing, education, and health care for all and community-based public safety approaches.

But other residents — seeing police offer security at several local Black Lives Matter events that drew opponents shouting racial slurs — countered that the department provided a necessary service.

“Being part of an interracial couple in Brattleboro, I don’t feel safe,” said MacLean Gander, a white man who’s married to Shanta Lee Gander, the town’s first — and, so far, only — Black elected official. “We know how to protect ourselves, but at the same time I don’t want to not be able to call the police.” [A Viewpoint from the couple appears in this week’s Voices section, page B1.]

Specialists reminded that the town topped state tallies for opioid-overdose deaths. In April, Fitzgerald reported the town’s largest monthly fatality figure, just weeks after a capacity crowd at a public forum complained of a 411-percent increase in drug-related vehicle break-ins.

“I have seen the chief and his staff address addiction with progressive attitudes and creative collaborative solutions,” Cassandra Holloway, director of the Building a Positive Community, said in a letter, pointing out that police are working with health and human service providers on Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement).

“We are not Atlanta, we are not Missouri, we are a small but mighty community with leaders who are willing to learn and unlearn and really care about all of us as individuals,” Holloway continued. “Give them a chance to show you how they will listen and take action in line with your feedback.”

Franz Reichsman, chairman of the town Finance Committee, noted the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

“I’m not saying there’s nothing that can be done,” Reichsman said, “but I think a wholesale reimagining of the budget and the budget process takes longer than the time that’s actually available.”

Three of the five-member Selectboard agreed, with Wessel and colleagues Elizabeth McLoughlin and Daniel Quipp approving the spending plan and Ian Goodnow and Brandie Starr voting against it.

“It really is the 11th hour,” McLoughlin said. “We need this action for the town to function on July 1. Now all that being said, I would look forward to a careful review of the Brattleboro Police Department.”

On his public official Facebook page, Quipp wrote the next day, “I know that some of you are disappointed in me. Ultimately, I was not willing to put Brattleboro in a situation where we could not continue town operations in two weeks time.”

“I can assure that we will make time, space and resources available to explore how policing could be different in our town,” he continued.

Chief makes pledge to listen and learn

The next day, on the Town Common, Fitzgerald faced two hours of questions, almost all of them from abolitionists who are unhappy this town will continue to fund his department for the coming fiscal year.

“Make no mistake, there are things we can do better, there are things we’re working on, there are things that I don’t even know yet that we need to do,” Fitzgerald said at a meeting where he set up a microphone on the town common and invited the public to ask anything.

A gathering of about 100 people spaced out on the grass voiced concerns that were as much global as local.

“It’s not just a particular department that has created this scenario for us, it is multiple people in multiple departments in multiple places in multiple states in this whole entire country that have brought us to this point across 400 years,” said the evening’s first speaker, Wichie Artu.

Many residents, spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of Black resident George Floyd, have attended three local demonstrations seeking racial justice and, in the case of the abolitionists, demanded that municipal police money be reallocated for human services.

In response, Fitzgerald has kneeled with attendees at a recent silent vigil, organized Wednesday’s forum, and posted a letter on Facebook.

“Law enforcement officers represent their community,” the letter begins. “In order for any law enforcement agency to be successful, it is critical for the community to trust their police officers and the police officers to trust their community.”

Forum participant Shea Witzo, giving credit that recent local police statements were “not overtly racist,” said her larger concern was that society was investing in “people with guns” instead of “housing people, feeding people, getting people support, getting people jobs.”

“It doesn’t actually matter if every Brattleboro police officer is doing the best job possible,” Witzo said. “We’re not asking for everyone to do their best at a job that we think needs to relinquish some power so that we can add some power into some of these other areas that our community really desperately needs.”

Speaker after speaker took issue with Fitzgerald, pointing out everything from his white privilege to the fact he was carrying a gun. When he answered, he was criticized for not listening. When he listened, he was criticized for not answering.

“We’re kind of coming at you with a lot,” attendee Cade Glover-Yellovich told the chief when first taking the microphone before swearing and storming off during a second turn to express his dissatisfaction.

After Wednesday’s forum, several townspeople questioned why speakers indignant about defunding didn’t attend any of the many publicly warned Selectboard budget-writing sessions that began last fall.

The chief, for his part, simply took everything in — including criticism of a 2001 police shooting that happened before he joined the force. Fitzgerald was asked what he was doing to heal past hurt.

“Community repair?” he responded. “That’s what we’re doing now.”

Moving forward

On Tuesday, Witzo, asked about where the conversation might go from here, described “exponentially increased threads of conversation about next steps for change among people who have long been interested in increased police accountability and decreased criminalization in our community.”

She cited deep, multidisciplinary efforts at the town, state, and national levels to effect change in policy and process and address racial injustice — all of which “are happening, largely with leadership from people in historically criminalized communities.”

“We have a tremendous opportunity right now to put forth real local alternatives to policing that will better care for, honor, hold accountable, and heal all of our community members,” she said. “We must listen, learn, imagine, organize, and push for visionary, antiracist, community generated, localized change.”

At press time, longtime activist Kurt Daims of Brattleboro Common Sense posted a “call to action” on Facebook, announcing that he intends to start circulating a petition to force a referendum on the budget to leverage compromise and change in policing.

According to the terms of the town charter, a petition signed by 250 registered Brattleboro voters or one third of Town Meeting representatives can trigger a townwide vote.

In his post, Daims enthusiastically praised Fitzgerald. “Having negotiated about police reform as a member of Brattleboro Common Sense with him since 2018, I can personally attest that he is just as fair and straight-talking than any of our liberal and radical allies,“ he said. “He sees the national value of progress here in Brattleboro.”

On Monday, the chief said that now that many individuals, organizations, and the Selectboard have offered a wide range of ideas, he is not sure where the department will go next — except that he will have to wait for decisions and policies at multiple levels.

“What is going to be passed at the federal level and what are my obligations there? What will pass at the state level? What are my obligations there? What will be passed through the Vermont Criminal Justice Training, which trains and certifies all police officers? What are my obligations there?” the chief asked rhetorically.

“What’s going to be passed at the Selectboard, what do they want and what are my obligations there? These grassroot organizations, what’s their input going to be with these various organizations and how do they fit in?” asked Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald did acknowledge that while budget decisions and regulations around a change such as “defund the police” are not entirely in his control, he will continue to improve the culture of his department, which has participated in multiple trainings around unconscious bias and fair policing, he said.

In the meantime, the chief described a middle ground between the polar opposite of policing as usual and abolishing police departments as the regulators, police, and citizens coming together and deciding what is best for their community.

“I don’t know what is going to come down,” Fitzgerald said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #567 (Wednesday, June 24, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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