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Brattleboro group will draft RFP for police reform process

A new proposal will be considered at special Selectboard meeting on Aug. 6 after an at-times-difficult five-hour meeting

BRATTLEBORO—Last week’s marathon Selectboard meeting moved through moments of collaboration, disagreement, optimism, anger, tears, and honesty in a journey toward local police reform.

Over the course of its five hours, the meeting was at times productive and, at times, stuck. But at the end of the night, the board voted unanimously to ask the Collaborative Community to create a Request for Proposals (RFP).

The Collaborative Community will draft specifications for a process to review community safety and policing in Brattleboro. Once approved, the RFP will be used to contract a professional facilitator to guide the town, its police force, and representatives of various groups in evaluating and addressing policing and public safety in Brattleboro.

The Collaborative Community consists of individuals as well as members of area human service and social justice organizations. A recent proposal submitted by the group was signed by more than 150 individuals and 14 organizations.

In a statement to the board, members of the Collaborative wrote, “We are seeking a review process focused on a comprehensive examination of community safety and policing in Brattleboro to determine whether the police force effectively meets the community’s needs, and to determine how to best fund and support community safety.”

The document continued, “Many in our community do not feel, and are not, safe. Simply looking at the Brattleboro Police Department does not adequately address this problem. We need to examine how we are framing and funding community safety here in Brattleboro.”

The Collaborative is a response to the Selectboard’s June 16 meeting where community members spoke against and in support of the Police Department.

At that meeting, several community members unsuccessfully urged the board to reject the General Fund budget for fiscal year 2021in order to change the Police Department’s budget.

For some community members, this request meant reducing the department’s budget. For some it meant redirecting funds to social service agencies. For some, it meant defunding the department entirely.

The board approved the FY21 budget, but members said they’d continue the conversation.

In response, the Collaborative’s members submitted a proposal to the board on June 30. The conversation continued at the July 7 board meeting.

The Collaborative followed up that proposal with additional remarks prior to the July 21 meeting in response to an RFP created by Selectboard member Elizabeth McLoughlin.

A community responsibility

The Collaborative’s proposal moved beyond the police department to focus on creating community-wide safety and well-being. Rather than being the job of one department, the proposal stated community safety was the community’s job.

In their follow-up document, the Collaborative members said they agreed with many parts of McLoughlin’s RFP.

The members also listed five areas where the two proposals diverged.

The Collaborative members support a wider scope in a review process that takes a “comprehensive examination of community safety and policing in Brattleboro to determine whether the police force effectively meets the communities’ needs, and to determine how to best fund and support community safety.”

Considering safety only through the framework of the Police Department does not full address the needs of community members who don’t feel safe in Brattleboro.

The members also sought a community-led decision making process, needed to support the people most impacted by policing and to afford them the most power, they wrote. The Collaborative members also called for allowing the process’s committee — if created — to make recommendations and decisions.

“They should not just be an information gathering tool, but rather have the authority to craft proposals for change (if they identify that change is needed and possible) that will be approved by the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting,” stated the Collaborative.

Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel worried about the request because giving such a committee policymaking power might circumvent the Town Charter and state statute.

He also questioned if the proposal meant that the Selectboard and Town Meeting members would be expected to simply rubber stamp any of the proposed committee’s recommendations.

Collaborative member Amber Arnold responded that the group’s intention was “both/and” — that the Collaborative wanted an equitable partnership with the Selectboard. The group also wanted those with lived experience to have decision-making power.

In statements to the board during the July 21 meeting, Collaborative members said they wanted to focus on process and not outcome. The members felt that some aspects of McLoughlin’s RPF veered too much toward specific outcomes without first examining community needs.

Specifically, the members took issue with McLoughlin referencing the work of a group called Campaign Zero, a nonprofit that advocates for specific police reforms.

The Collaborative said they don’t support the goals of Campaign Zero — “and neither do the founders of Campaign Zero, who themselves shifted their objectives toward defunding and abolition after concern about the soundness of their statistical analysis and feedback from communities that these objectives did not align with the long term goals of anti-racist organizers across the country),” the Collaborative wrote.

Also, despite calls for swift action in earlier community conversations, the Collaborative members stressed the need for a longer timeline.

“Anticipating that this deep and significant work be completed within the next four months (by November 2020) is not realistic,” members wrote.

Instead, the members proposed a phased approach, with Phase 1 addressing funding in the FY21 Town Budget.

Finally, the Collaborative members said the Selectboard needed to give more value and attention to community-led work and initiatives. The members stated that despite the overwhelming community support for their proposal, the board, in its support for the McLoughlin proposal, had instead favored the work of one board member.

Board member Daniel Quipp, who had participated in the Collaborative’s proposal-building, said, “It is a beautiful thing to see people start with a blank page and through a very collaborative process” deliver a completed proposal.

He said that the Collaborative’s process could support the municipality’s work when tackling big, complex questions.

Advancing the process

According to McLoughlin, her goal in submitting the RFP was to advance the review process. She said she had updated her initial RFP to incorporate community feedback.

Still, multiple members of the Collaborative stressed that as a lone individual in a position of authority, and as a white woman, McLoughlin was not qualified to create an RFP that scrutinized policing and public safety.

Selectboard member Brandie Starr echoed these statements, saying that as white people, “it’s not for us” to draft an RFP or process designed to keep “BIPOC or queer communities safe.”

As the meeting progressed, more community members commented. And after an intermission, what had been a tone of congeniality turned.

For example, Franz Reichsman shared his frustration, characterizing the group’s process as undemocratic. He said he felt unsafe speaking against the Collaborative’s proposal and that he’d be judged.

Starr criticized Reichsman. She said that for people who have experienced trauma, everyday experiences can hurt, and she characterized Reichsman’s words as harmful.

“We’re getting past the niceties,” said Collaborative member Alex Fischer, who had spoken several times during the meeting on the group’s behalf. “This is really important.”

“Franz, I’m disappointed,” said Fisher, who also expressed gratitude to Reichsman. “Those who agree with you will continue to be uncomfortable, but you will continue to be safe, and there is a huge difference.”

They continued saying that while expressing and hearing feelings in public is uncomfortable, it’s also amazing.

“Having feelings is amazing,” they said. “It is how we start to heal from the trauma of white supremacy and it’s how we as white folks start to heal from the trauma we’ve inflicted up one and the pain of benefiting from systems.”

Julie Cunningham said she supported the Collaborative’s proposal.

Cunningham shared her experience as a woman of color, mother, and grandmother. She talked about her son’s multiple interactions with the police.

He had been “disappeared on me,” she said.

One night, police broke down her door looking for him. Cunningham said she felt terrified.

In telling that story, she explained that people who are marginalized experience pain and trauma from being over-policed.

Cunningham added that her two grandsons only had a few years before police saw them as threats. She urged action.

A conflict not easily solved

The July 21 Selectboard meeting was a clash of experiences, needs, personal beliefs, emotions, legal structures, and a call for change by community members marginalized by those structures.

Within that dynamic is the potential for town-wide change and the potential for conflict with existing legal and governing structures.

Town Manager Peter Elwell noted that whatever process or RFP the town moves forward with must align with processes and law set forth in the existing Town Charter and state statutes. Such requirements govern funding and transparency, such as open meeting and open document laws.

Community members during the meeting countered that the existing legal structures were built on generations of oppression of marginalized communities for the benefit of white communities — and that such structures inherently support white supremacy.

The Selectboard, however, is bound by those legal structures. If a process is to be town-sanctioned, it will — at least for now — need to move through the existing system.

In Brattleboro’s case, the two governing bodies charged with overseeing the use of the town’s collective financial resources — the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting — will need to sign off.

By Aug. 3, the Collaborative will submit the proposed RFP to the board, which will hold a special meeting on Thursday, Aug. 6 to consider the measure.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #572 (Wednesday, July 29, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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