How can public have a constructive dialogue with police unless we know whom we’re talking to?

BRATTLEBORO — It was humbling to sit on the Town Common on June 17 and listen to stories of pain and frustration presented by people whose lives have been impacted in negative ways over the years by the Brattleboro Police Department.

But it was equally humbling to realize how little I (and perhaps others) know about the people who now work in that department.

I've met Chief Mike Fitzgerald once or twice. But I didn't know until recently that he grew up in Brattleboro. That he went to St. Michael's (or was it Green Street)? Is he married? With children? Did he go to college? What does he do when he's not in uniform? What's the scariest moment he has had while working in the police?

I don't know. So how can I (or, I daresay, we) hope to have a constructive dialogue with him unless we know whom we're talking to?

As an “old heterosexual white guy” who's lived in Brattleboro for 40 years, I can't claim to feel the pain others spoke about, but I can claim to be an expert in constructive communication.

We don't need to work with “the police.” We need to work with Mike and _____, and _____, and _______. (See? I don't even know their names!)

On the same day as this community forum, I was on a Zoom meeting in which Shela Linton from the Root Social Justice Center articulated some serious concerns about the Vermont Department of Children and Families and the court system. But she began by asking us all to tell her who we were. Clearly, she wanted to speak with us, not at us.

One thing Mike mentioned was that the people on his force are supposed to spend an hour or so a day walking downtown. I encourage all of us - particularly those most passionate about the need for change - to introduce ourselves when they see someone in uniform.

Certainly, it's an opportunity to express concerns. But it's also an opportunity to find out whom we're talking to. What are their names? Where do they live? What are their concerns? What have they experienced?

This might seem like an odd suggestion at a time when it feels so important that the people in the police department hear the voices of people in the community. But to move forward, I truly believe it's equally important for us to hear theirs.

I'm sure it will help significantly to have more community forums, to reinvigorate oversight and accountability, and to maximize social-service resources and community policing.

But there's a remarkable, even magical, transformation that happens when we meet each other one-on-one (with masks!).

It's hard to remember sometimes - particularly when the need for change is so critical - but we're in this together.

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