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Brattleboro sets stronger fair/impartial policing policy

State attorney general has approved changes that bolster rights of undocumented workers, preventing information sharing with federal agencies enforcing immigration

BRATTLEBORO—Advocates for the rights of migrant farmworkers and other immigrants — documented and undocumented alike — have applauded the Brattleboro Police Department’s revisions to its Fair and Impartial Policing Policy (FIPP), which now prohibit officers from communicating or collaborating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“We applaud the towns and counties that have strengthened their policies to better protect immigrant rights,” says staff member Will Lambek of Migrant Justice, a Burlington nonprofit that suggested the local policy change.

“This is a signal to the state of Vermont that communities want a statewide policy that will provide these protections,” Lambek says.

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell says the revisions have not substantially changed the initial policy and that the town and department agreed from the start of talks about what Migrant Justice was trying to achieve in its suggested revisions.

“It was an easy process,” Elwell says of working out new language to add to the existing policy with Migrant Justice and Brattleboro Police Department Captain Mark Carignan, who served as interim chief at the time.

“Our officers had been instructed to focus on local, municipal law enforcement and had been abiding by the spirit of the law,” Elwell says. “We are and have been philosophically 100 percent with what Migrant Justice and the other advocates were asking us to adopt, so it was a matter of working on the specific wording.”

A human rights organization led by Vermont farmworkers, Migrant Justice continues to coordinate the policy update effort with its No Más Polimigra campaign. “Polimigra” refers to collaboration between local and federal law enforcement agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ellen Schwartz, a Brattleboro resident and member of the No Más Polimigra campaign, says all improvements are “basically designed to close loopholes that would allow for collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE or the border patrol.”

Migrant Justice partners with local working groups to advocate for the adoption of strengthened FIPPs by municipal police departments and county sheriffs, including the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.

Changes for the Sheriff’s Department would “affect language, not operations,” says Sheriff Mark Anderson.

“Words matter,” Anderson said. “We’re receptive to changing words so that we can be supportive and inclusive of everyone in Windham County. We have paused as we wait for the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to approve its model policy. Once they do that, I will apply my changes and submit the policy for the Attorney General’s approval.”

Newly hired Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy, who replaced retired Chief Michael Fitzgerald two weeks ago, supports the revisions, calling them “not much of a revision for the policy.”

“There were just a couple of words that the community decided they wanted,” she says. “I think [Chief Fitzgerald] understood that’s not what we were here to do — work with immigration services.”

“We will be in compliance,” Hardy says, though she has not seen the final wording.

“From what I’ve seen — and remember, this is my second week — I do not believe that will make my officers act any differently,” she says. “Other than a crime, when regardless of status, that person would be treated and processed like anyone else.”

How policies changed

The effort to limit local police collaboration with federal deportation authorities started with the original FIPP, created by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, in 2016.

“It was a pretty robust policy,” says Schwartz.

The protections pertained to guidelines limiting police collaboration with deportation authorities, such as ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Migrant Justice farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and not eligible for visas, went to the Vermont State House asking a law be enacted to compel police departments to implement the policy.

Most of these workers, says Schwartz, work on dairy farms. Their status is different from immigrants hired to pick apples, which is considered seasonal work.

“But, in 2017, some protections were taken out, weakening the policy, so it had these loopholes in it,” Schwartz says.

Local police departments are required to implement the policy as a baseline, but they can also choose to strengthen it, so Migrant Justice organized around the state to encourage bolstering the baseline state policy — as has now happened in Brattleboro.

The first community that did so was Winooski, and the revisions are sometimes referred to as the “Winooski Policy.”

The Windham County working group of local police officials and Migrant Justice/No Mas Polimigra came together at the end of 2019.

Brattleboro’s Community Safety Review Team, which made a comprehensive assessment of the town’s safety profile, included the campaign’s provisions in its recommendations and the town agreed to adopt the provisions.

No Mas Polimigra will also monitor Brattleboro Police Department training for the new policy.

No information sharing

“The policy that already existed prevented officers inquiring about immigration status; the ‘ask’ part hasn’t particularly changed, but the ‘tell’ part has,” Lambek says of the revisions.

“In the past, if an officer pulled someone over for speeding and learned they were undocumented, they could call ICE or the border patrol,” he says. “Officers were not allowed to [actively] investigate immigration status under either the old policy or the new, but now they are not allowed to communicate with federal deportation regarding someone’s status.”

For example, Lambek says, if someone is pulled over and, in the course of the stop, an officer learns the person has a Mexican visa, now they cannot call deportation officials and ask them to run the visa.

“In the past there has been collaboration between ICE and local police, although not so much in Windham County,” Schwartz says. “But then an immigrant from Putney went to the [Registry of Motor Vehicles] to get a driver privilege card and was turned over to immigration.”

Winooski and Brattleboro join police departments in Burlington, Hartford, Norwich, Richmond, and South Burlington, as well as the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, in signing on to the changes.

Migrant Justice’s ultimate goal is to add the revisions to the policy throughout the state.

Traveling freely, due process

Revisions to the Brattleboro Police Department’s FIPP have been certified by the state attorney general, the final step needed for implementation.

Migrant Justice says the six improvements to the FIPP are designed “to ensure the right to travel freely and to promote due process in cases of police interaction.”

• One revision ensures that personal characteristics and/or immigration status not be used as criteria for citation, arrest, or continued custody.

Advocates say this improvement “ensures that determinations are based on facts, not identity, protecting against discrimination.”

• Another improvement clarifies that investigations of unlawful entry should be limited, and not a department priority, unless a suspect is apprehended in the process of entering the U.S. without inspection.

The group says this addition will close the “border-crossing pretext for warrantless arrests or detentions.”

• The revised policy also protects crime witnesses and victims by stating that information about them shall not be shared with federal immigration authorities without their consent.

• The new policy also protects confidentiality and prohibits information-sharing “unless necessary to an ongoing investigation of a felony, for which there is probable cause and the investigation is unrelated to the enforcement of federal civil immigration law.”

• Finally, the policy protects due process for detainees. “Unless ICE or CPB agents have a judicially-issued criminal warrant, or members have legitimate law enforcement purpose exclusive of the use of civil immigration laws, members shall not grant ICE or CPB agents access to individuals in [Agency] custody,” that part reads.

In addition to these improvements, the Brattleboro Police Department removed specific references to U.S. Code 1373 and 1644 and instead added the sentence, “Nothing in this policy is intended to violate federal law.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #625 (Wednesday, August 11, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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