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Brattleboro safety review committee begins work

Community Safety Project board holds first meeting to set ground rules and structure for public safety review

BRATTLEBORO—The work is just beginning.

So said Emily Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger, who have been retained by the town to facilitate a deep examination of municipal resources, how they are spent on public safety, and whether those resources can be used more equitably to support community safety, health, and well-being.

The facilitators and nine committee members shepherding the Community Safety Project held their first meeting last week, which served as an initial meet-and-greet and an opportunity for Megas-Russell and Witzberger to walk members through the state’s right-to-know laws and the project’s parameters.

In just over two hours, participants moved through the agenda smoothly with committee members asking questions about process and expectations.

In consideration of participants’ time, the members tabled developing committee agreements until next meeting. Members also agreed to participate in a poll to determine a regular meeting schedule.

The municipality is undergoing the review process in response to several community members’ urging to build a public safety system with racial and social justice at its core. Proponents argued that the town’s current public safety system is steeped in white supremacy and marginalizes multiple community members.

During its first meeting, Megas-Russell framed the committee’s work as part of a larger national question of how to equitably provide public safety. She added that as the committee moves through its review, the process will change and adapt in response to the community’s needs and the information gathered.

The committee and facilitators are expected to present a report with its recommendations to the Selectboard by Dec. 31. On Sept. 15, the Selectboard approved Megas-Russell and Witzberger’s $15,000 proposal that with other costs, such as committee members’ $750 stipend, could cost up to $40,000.

On Sept. 22, the board appointed committee members Darlene Derby, Lana Dever, Kazimir (Kaz) DeWolfe, Annaliese Griffin, Drift Maven, Robert Oeser, Kelsey Rice, Maya Shulman-Ment, and Laura Stamas.

A matter of funding

The public impetus for the project took shape at a June Selectboard meeting. Members of the public urged the board to reopen the municipal budget to reconsider the Police Department’s funding.

Instead, the board members said they would consider a process to examine public safety in town.

As Witzberger walked the committee members through the final approved proposal, she noted that she and Megas-Russell anticipate hiring co-facilitators if necessary to fill in knowledge or experience gaps.

Witzberger acknowledged that, as White people, she and Megas-Russell may lack the life experience or trusting relationships to engage with some members of the community.

Megas-Russell provided committee members with an overview of the Vermont open meeting and public records laws — which cover municipal meetings and official documents — and how these laws pertain to the committee’s work.

She noted that, by law, the committee’s activities must remain transparent for members of the public, but she also acknowledged that a collection of people’s personal experiences might require anonymity.

The committee will need to navigate this balancing act, the facilitators said.

Megas-Russell and Witzberger also explained that members could not legally discuss committee business if a quorum was not present. Under Vermont law, that circumstance legally defines a meeting, which must be warned and open to the public except under specific circumstances.

Committee member Dever said that asking people to share their personal stories without a clear answer to how the town would use the information or recommendations concerned her. She asked what the Selectboard and Police Department would be required to do with the committee’s recommendations.

Megas-Russell said that the review will not focus on individual police officers. She added that the facilitators are scheduling meetings with the department as well as requesting training materials and policies for review. So far, the town staff have cooperated.

Committee members agreed that they should also connect with the Citizen Police Communications Committee (CPCC) in some form.

Dever added that, given the CPCC’s work over the years, the Community Safety Project committee owed it the opportunity to discuss issues.

Near the end of the meeting, Witzberger reminded the committee that the municipality approved the community safety review after a process of “pressure and collaboration.”

Going forward, she anticipated the same dance.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #582 (Wednesday, October 7, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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