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‘An undemocratic thing to do’

Brattleboro police reform recommendations — which should have been a civilian-led process — left control of the issue to the police. This was not supposed to happen.

Kurt Daims, a longtime activist, works to make global issues local as director of Brattleboro Common Sense, whose mission is “to invigorate the political life and maximize the political influence of Brattleboro, by facilitating residents’ involvement and influence in civic affairs and town governance.” Contact for meeting times.


Facing an angry public and the threat of a budget referendum after the murder of George Floyd, the Selectboard formed the Community Safety Committee. This was to be a civilian committee composed entirely of residents, especially people at risk, and explicitly excluding police, modeling civilian authority over police.

The committee produced a report with 41 recommendations. Brattleboro Common Sense’s SAFE policing plan is recommended in its entirety as number 38, and specifically for disarming police for community tasks (such as in schools, official meetings) as recommendation number 37.

At the Jan. 19, 2021 Selectboard meeting, then–board member Brandie Starr asked for a motion to approve the full committee report. It was roundly praised.

Unfortunately, no one noticed that instead of a motion to approve the full report, the board approved a motion to send the report to town staff for more information.

“Town staff” turned out to mean Interim Police Chief Mark Carignan.

In March the report was again heaped with praise, and staff submitted an “implementation table.”

Then–Town Manager Peter Elwell said the full report should be approved as one proposal. But the town staff didn’t just supply information. Their implementation table rejected key recommendations of the committee.

In August, the board unveiled Elwell’s memo, which attempts to explain the differences between the recommendations and the implementation table.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, Elwell submitted his re-revised table. While discussing the proposal by Brattleboro Common Sense about police with guns in schools and meetings, Elwell said Brattleboro’s meetings are dangerous because people are considering controversial issues, so the police need guns to protect themselves.

Two people asked for evidence about these dangerous meetings, but he avoided the question, and a while later, board member Dan Quipp said that people were talking too much about the BCS SAFE Policing plan.

* * *

Despite the specific purposes of the committee about safety and feeling of safety among the people, the concern of many officials has been the safety and feelings of the police. Selectboard member Tim Wessel dissed the committee and promoted the “Blue Lives Matter” trope in comments in the Reformer last January, also with praise.

A dozen lofty and complex proposals in the table are rejected but awaiting funding, or approved but requiring info that has already been supplied.

The board rubber-stamped the rejections without a public hearing. Maybe they were just overwhelmed and confused, but it was an undemocratic thing to do, and it left control of the issue to the police.

This was supposed to be a civilian-led process. Many proposals were complex and required separate consideration, but the board pretended to approve the whole proposal and left the whole proposal for “staff” to consider outside public view.

The motion to approve the full report became a motion to get more information, and in that act assumed full authority over the report, yet the paperwork has been juggled and shuffled, the committee report has been rejected in parts and praised to the skies. The police were under civilian oversight, and the civilian committee is under police oversight.

Selectboard Zoom meetings keep everyone muted, and no hearing is scheduled. If someone wants to start an official petition about it, social distancing presses the mute button on that.

The last straightforward official statement about the report came from Brandie Starr almost a year ago. In the razzle-dazzle of praise and paper-juggling we lost sight of serious reforms and the democratic civilian-led process that this was supposed to be.

Let’s get it back on track.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #646 (Wednesday, January 12, 2022). This story appeared on page B3.

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