Our police department, our values

Brattleboro’s force has emphasized a ‘guardian culture,’ with de-escalation trainings and compassion at its core

BRATTLEBORO — As cities and towns across the United States grapple with a new awareness for the need to have a responsive and responsible local police force, Brattleboro residents should remember some of the good work we've already done in our town toward these ends.

When Michael Fitzgerald, born and raised in town, became our police chief in 2014, he began to methodically and systematically transform the institution from one that resembled a typical police department into one that more properly reflects the values of our community.

Through smart new officer hires and working together with existing officers, Chief Fitzgerald has concentrated on moving the entire department from a “warrior” mentality to a “guardian” culture, concentrating much energy into de-escalation trainings and putting compassion at the center of the BPD.

The department's updated mission statement now reflects those values: “While serving the community, we recognize the differences in the conduct of people who need our help, those who make poor decisions, and those who choose to victimize others.”

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With the growing popularity of a “Defund the Police” movement, it's important to understand the history of some of the changes already undertaken here, and also the ongoing method by which our citizen democracy is constantly evaluating our community's needs when it comes to policing.

Every year, the Selectboard spends many hours going over our staff's requested budget. (This past winter, our budget scrutiny required nine separate meetings.) Every year, we encourage public input.

In addition to examination and commentary on our police department's budget priorities, we continuously welcome other ways for citizens to have an influence on policy directions and even get involved directly with community/police relations through the Citizen Police Communications Committee (CPCC).

Every complaint lodged against the Brattleboro Police starts with an internal investigation (which must adhere to guidelines spelled out in state law). The findings are then reviewed by the CPCC, which can go on to request further investigation and review by the Selectboard.

To the department's credit, the CPCC has not received many complaints in the last few years. Three seats on the CPCC are open for anyone who is interested in serving.

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In 2018, your Selectboard felt it was important to equip the BPD with body cameras, and the department enthusiastically embraced that technology as well.

As a result, the department now has video systems and recording procedures on vehicles and on officers themselves. These devices can assist in both training sessions and in transparency with any future questions concerning officer conduct.

For several years now, both the Selectboard and our police force have rejected any opportunities to obtain surplus military-style gear through the Department of Defense or other sources. It simply does not fit our vision of what is needed in a cooperative community policing model.

Our police need to be well-equipped to handle many threats, but they do not need to be an offensive military force. This distinction is crucial.

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Last November, an incident occurred on Putney Road that many will remember as frightening and one that could have gone very wrong in so many ways.

A man from out of state, possibly suffering from a mental illness, began shouting in traffic, jumping on vehicles and even smashed a front windshield before being subdued by Officer Tyler Cooke and Lt. Carl Warner, who were attacked in the process.

The scary scene, caught on multiple cellphone videos, made it clear that both officers kept their heads throughout, used good de-escalation training, and ultimately controlled the man using a minimum of necessary force.

Witnesses reported that the actions of Officer Cooke and Lt. Warner were exemplary, and I have no doubt that BPD's excellent training served to prevent a similar tragedy like the ones we have sadly been seeing repeated all over our country lately.

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On the community service side of the equation, 2018 also saw the launch of Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery Engagement), a cooperative effort that Chief Fitzgerald spearheaded with Lt. Adam Petlock coordinating, that assembles multiple local agencies and the BPD to make direct connections to those suffering from opioid misuse.

From frank discussions with users on our streets to volunteer hours spent driving individuals to treatment centers, Project CARE has a proven track record of helping many of our residents. In this most recent budget, your Selectboard newly approved $16,000 to continue town funding.

For many years now, a full-time social worker, Kristen Neuf, has been “embedded” at the BPD through a partnership with Health Care and Rehabilitation Services. She works regularly with BPD officers on issues involving homeless and other at-risk residents - another example of the “guardian” role that BPD plays in conjunction with our important local human service agencies.

Our people in the Brattleboro Police Department are part of our community, and that is reflected in the compassion and open communication I see coming from the department.

This is not to say there are no opportunities for improvement. In a recent letter to the community, Chief Fitzgerald said, “It is only through continued collaboration, engaging in genuine dialogue and forming true partnerships with members and organizations of the community, that we can sustain and extend positive change.”

I welcome any and all voices to come to our Selectboard meetings to discuss any changes to our policies or budgets that you think are needed.

In the process, I hope you will also seek to appreciate - as I now do - the excellent Brattleboro Police Department employees who protect and serve us all each day.

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