Selectboard repeals anti-panhandling ordinance

Move prompts wide-ranging discussion on policing in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — Following guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union and the town's legal counsel, the Brattleboro Selectboard unanimously voted to repeal an anti-panhandling ordinance at their regular meeting on Oct. 16.

During the comments period, Board members invited Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald to discuss how his officers are responding to the increase of people asking strangers for money, and people who are homeless, in the downtown district.

This was the second public hearing of the ordinance change; the first occurred at the Oct. 2 regular Selectboard meeting.

Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor briefly summarized the reason for the repeal of Section 13-2 of the town code of ordinances, which said a person “begging for money” in town can be removed from town by an officer of the law.

“We received a letter, probably six weeks ago, from the ACLU, informing us that our anti-panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional, something that we had already known,” said O'Connor, who noted, “It hasn't been enforced."

During the comments period, no member of the public came forward.

Police chief's perspective

Fitzgerald was in the audience, and the Selectboard asked him to speak about some ways the police department is serving its residents - specifically those affected by poverty, and those complaining about people asking strangers for money - and how that may change.

Board member David Schoales noted that some residents requested more police presence, including camera surveillance, in downtown public areas. He asked if someone other than a police officer - such as a town employee - could monitor the closed-circuit TV feed.

“I want to talk about that openly and see what we could do [...] in that area,” Schoales said.

“My take on cameras is that they're fantastic after the fact,” said Fitzgerald, who explained, “they really help us solve crimes,” but don't do much to prevent them.

“I don't think that's going to address our goal or help us. It would lead to a false sense of accomplishment,” he added.

Fitzgerald cautioned against focusing on short-term goals at the expense of long-term solutions to the problems of visible and persistent poverty.

“We need to find a solution, not enforcement. Enforcement certainly is a component,” Fitzgerald said, “but to address the issue that is downtown, we really need to [...] look at the causes and address [them], not just the symptoms."

More officers are spending more time downtown, Fitzgerald said, in an effort to address the proliferation of poor people and the perception of danger in the downtown district.

But he was clear that this work shouldn't rest solely on the police department, and that it is diverting finite resources from other law-enforcement concerns.

“I want to be part of the process,” Fitzgerald said, and “we [in the Brattleboro Police Department] certainly have a lot to offer, but we can't do it alone."

“I truly want to drive home [the point] that to do this long-term, we need engagement, not enforcement. And engagement from everybody - town government, the citizens, law-enforcement - that is going to solve the problem,” Fitzgerald said.

Downtown patrols

Fitzgerald said his officers were committed to spending “as much time as we possibly can in the downtown area,” including times - like in the middle of the night - when most people don't know they are there.

“We're walking up and down Main Street, we're in the parking lots, we're checking doors on the businesses ... It is a 24/7 tactic we're using,” he said.

O'Connor asked Fitzgerald how much of his department's time is specifically about law-enforcement, when “somebody has committed a crime,” versus “more of a social service."

“Very little law-enforcement, and a lot of quality-of-life issues,” said Fitzgerald, who noted “the majority” of his officers' work is on the latter. And it's not just downtown, he added.

“It's really instructive” to look at the Brattleboro Police Department's website,, especially the news releases, and their Twitter feed, O'Connor said.

Fitzgerald noted that beginning in mid-October, all of the department's monthly reports to the Selectboard will go on the BPD's website. These reports, he said, will include information on staffing, community service, and more.

Selectboard member Tim Wessel acknowledged the BPD has finite resources and asked if increasing downtown patrols will take away from the officers' other duties, especially motor vehicle enforcement.

“You're absolutely right,” said Fitzgerald, who noted that while the department will receive more officers next year as they graduate from the police academy and complete their training, they still don't have a full roster.

“To increase law enforcement in a certain area, you're going to have to take it from somewhere else,” he added.

Fitzgerald said he, Captain Mark Carignan, and other supervisors will reassess procedures, issues, and the department's assets.

More 'stacked' calls?

One possible result is non-emergency calls, like noise complaints, may get “stacked,” which means the dispatcher will notify the complainant that it may take more time for an officer to arrive.

Motor-vehicle-related patrols may change, too, and he may not assign officers to as many places where data shows few or no accidents. But, Fitzgerald assured the Selectboard, “we will divert officers to priority calls from downtown when necessary."

“I feel really strongly that it's not the Selectboard's job to tell the Brattleboro Police Department where to patrol,” said O'Connor. “You folks know more about what's going on in the 33 square miles of our town than any of us could ever know.”

Board Vice-Chair Brandie Starr agreed with O'Connor. As outreach case manager and landlord liaison for Groundworks Collaborative, she said she has first-hand knowledge about this issue.

“I'm confident you know exactly where you need to be, because I know the deep involvement you have with everybody in our community [...] from those living off Orchard Street to those sleeping on the bench in Harmony Lot,” Starr said.

“I'm happy to know that you're down there because I think it's a comfort to all citizens, even those that we might not necessarily think it's a comfort to,” Starr added.

Fitzgerald noted those citizens “have a greater chance of being victims than others, and we have to - and do - take that into consideration."

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