BRATTLEBORO — The town will spend up to $40,000 to pay two facilitators and a nine-member citizens committee for a three-month study of municipal law enforcement in the era of Black Lives Matter.
The Selectboard voted Sept. 15 to hire Brattleboro social worker Emily Megas-Russell and educator Shea Witzberger from Dummerston to head a review of the use of town resources for police and social services “to ensure equitable and optimal community health, wellness, and safety.”
“When we're talking about bringing people into conversation in our community, it's super important that the people holding that space are local,” Selectboard member Brandie Starr said of the two area facilitators chosen over two out-of-state firms.
The town spent all summer debating ways to review its police department that are fair to both people who believe it should be defunded and others who want protection in a town that has the most opioid-overdose deaths in the state and where racial justice events have drawn verbally abusive opponents charged with hate-motivated disorderly conduct.
Local leaders received four bids from potential facilitators to help the new Community Safety Review Committee this fall.
StoneTurn, a global advisory firm with offices in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., submitted a $175,000 bid.
Training 4 Transformation, an Oregon firm co-founded by a Black man and Asian woman who graduated from Brattleboro's School for International Training, submitted a $116,500 bid.
Rikki Risatti, a Brattleboro resident without specific facilitation education or experience, submitted a $6,600 bid with the statement, “I regret this hierarchical hiring process.”
Megas-Russell and Witzberger submitted a $15,000 bid that, with other committee and consultant expenses, may cost up to $40,000.
“Our priority in collaboration is with people of color, queer and trans folks, folks who are psychiatrically labeled, and folks who otherwise have a lot of experience to share with us around the Brattleboro police,” said Megas-Russell, part of what she described as a team of “white people committed to anti-racism.”
“The purpose of this process is are we listening to people who are under-heard in this world,” Witzberger said, “and hand that information over to you, the police department, and other groups to enact systems change.”
On Sept. 22, the Selectboard selected nine committee members from 23 applicants: Darlene Derby, Lana Dever, Kazimir DeWolfe, Annaliese Griffin, Drift Mavyn, Robert Oeser, Kelsey Rice, Maya Shulman-Ment, and Laura Stamas.
To encourage participation by marginalized people who often can't afford to volunteer, the town will pay each member up to a $750 stipend, giving priority to those who are indigenous, of color, LGBTQ, facing addiction, with physical or psychiatric challenges, poor or homeless, or survivors of domestic assault.
“I've been getting a lot of feedback from community members about are you going to start paying all committees and is this something that taxpayers have to be prepared for?” Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel said. “I'm very concerned about the precedent-setting nature of it, but I do acknowledge that [a community safety review] is a very big ask and it's a quick timeline, so that certainly is a good argument for a stipend.”
The committee will develop initial recommendations by Dec. 31 for consideration as the town drafts a municipal budget for the next fiscal year.
Police chief will retire
That report will arrive at the same time Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald is set to retire.
Fitzgerald, born and raised locally, served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the police department in 2000 and becoming lieutenant in 2005, captain in 2008, and chief in 2014.
“It is impossible for me to quantify the many acts of bravery, kindness and concern that our officers perform each day but I am deeply grateful for their acts and for the privilege of working beside them for the past 21 years,” Fitzgerald wrote in a retirement letter acknowledged by local leaders on Sept. 15.
Under the municipal charter, the town manager is responsible for hiring a new chief. Although some locals are calling for a police review, they acknowledge Fitzgerald's role in such efforts as Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement), which connects people who overdose or face arrest for minor drug offenses with treatment options.
“The size of the shoes that need to be filled,” Starr said from her Selectboard seat, “are enormous.”