Brattleboro gets community safety study’s final report

Review Committee shares findings and stories of harm, then offers recommendations

BRATTLEBORO — Facilitators of the Community Safety Review Committee and its members have released their recommendations to improve safety in town, especially for historically marginalized communities that, according to the report, are disproportionately and negatively affected by policing, state, and mental health systems.

Committee member Lana Dever told the Selectboard that the work that went into the report “fills me with sadness and hope at the same time.”

Still, Dever added, the town could have saved time and money if it had just listened.

“Marginalized people are sick and tired of talking about these things,” said Dever, who is multiracial and identifies as African American. “Your body might feel defensive; my body is on fire.”

Some of the recommendations outlined in the 224-page report include disbanding the Citizen Police Communications Committee (CPCC) and investing in restorative justice practices at all levels, especially at the neighborhood level.

“Police as the only response to safety is an idea we created,” facilitator Emily Megas-Russell told the board.

The review was the culmination of grassroots efforts that began last summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

The review's goal is to address issues of systemic racism and bias in municipal systems, specifically the police department.

Selectboard members hired facilitators Megas-Russell and Shea Witzberger after a series of board meetings and community events. These started over the summer when community members advocated for a reconsideration of the police budget, with many who spoke seeking a decrease in funding or abolishing the police altogether.

The board chose Megas-Russell and Witzberger to spearhead the project in September. Throughout the fall, the facilitators and members of the Community Safety Review Committee met weekly. The consultants submitted the report on Dec. 31.

The facilitators and Selectboard have discussed the report over two recent board meetings.

Authentic change and conversion

According to Megas-Russell and Witzberger, the review process focused on “listening to community experiences of safety, danger, and harm in Brattleboro and reviewing the current community safety response systems.”

Throughout the report, the facilitators shared the experiences of community members who identify as people of color or LGBTQIA+, or who deal with mental health issues.

In a separate interview, Witzberger said the review process has taught her more about building trust, especially on a community-wide level.

“I'm hearing that what trust-building looks like is acknowledgement of harm and real concrete steps to prevent or stop harm and to heal harm,” Witzberger said. “I guess I've been surprised that many people have so little trust in certain specific aspects of the way our culture is organized.”

Witzberger said that throughout the review process, she and Megas-Russell tried to mitigate additional harm to participants who shared painful experiences.

For the facilitators, however, their efforts didn't stop with collecting experiences. They also wanted - and still want - to ensure that the participants' stories don't sit on a shelf. They hope that the sharing leads to concrete steps that, in turn, lead to change.

“We have a responsibility to meet people's need for change and conversation in an authentic way that is real and true, and uncomfortable and challenging,” Witzberger said.

“I'm ready for that,” she continued. “I want to show up to that, because what being accountable means to me in this process is showing people who have shared with us that we are invested in making change that supports everyone to feel more safety.”

Moving forward despite tensions

The report's key findings and recommendations were organized into four categories: Acknowledge and reckon with harm caused; increase accountability; meet people's basic needs and build up alternatives to policing and police-like safety responses; and reduce police presence and the role of policing.

The facilitators provided 24 pages of key findings with corresponding recommendations and timelines.

For example, under the “acknowledge and reckon” category, the facilitators found that racial bias and profiling “are active” and currently present problems in the community, and that “police participation and other involuntary interventions in mental, emotional, and spiritual health crisis response are ineffective and often harmful for many community members.”

They found that responses by the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) to at-risk youth “often cause intergenerational trauma and do not address the roots of unsafety for children” and that “some community members expect more of the police than is safe for others.”

Witzberger and Megas-Russell recommended responses for the next fiscal year:

“Seriously, thoughtfully, immediately, and longingly consider the community experiences, data, findings, and recommendations articulated in the report.

“Publicly acknowledge and accept the experiences of racism, discrimination, intimidation, fear, terror, and harm detailed in this report, in our public forums, and in our community.

“Publicly commit as a town, including the Selectboard, to acknowledge and address systemic racism/white supremacy, ableism and sanism, homophobic and transphobic discrimination, and classism in an ongoing way.

“Operationalize this commitment in budgets, time commitments, and work tasks as part of the town's ongoing regular practices to avoid a return to 'business as usual,' which is hurting people.”

Megas-Russell noted that her analysis of the police department showed that in 2019, 17 percent of times that force was used, it was against a subject who was Black. In 2020, that percentage was 13 percent.

According to the U.S, Census data for the area, “these percentages are significantly higher than the percentage of African Americans, and all people of color, living in Brattleboro. Harm and trauma are occurring in these situations,” she told the Selectboard.

Megas-Russell and Witzberger also reported that Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) want less policing in their communities and more investment in meeting people's needs. The consultants said that this community wants BIPOC-led efforts and, in general, less money to go toward policing “and the prison-industrial complex.”

The facilitators wrote that they anticipate that the community will receive the report with a combination of “tensions and readiness.”

“It is important to acknowledge that the key findings are just that, what we found when asking the question: What does safety, danger, and harm look and feel like in our community? These experiences are unarguable as they are reflections of many people's lived experience,” they wrote.

“We encourage the community and its leaders to consider all of the content in this report, and take actions in the places of readiness while challenging ourselves to grow and transform in all areas towards the vision of a safe community for all,” they added.

Shared experiences

Megas-Russell and Witzberger shared that many participants worried about their safety or potential retaliation if they shared their experiences publicly. The participants included individuals and employees of various organizations and state agencies and were publicly unidentified.

During the Jan. 5 Selectboard meeting, Witzberger explained that the report uses qualitative rather than quantitative data. While qualitative might not be as granular or precise as quantitative, she said, it allowed more people to participate in the process. As such, she pointed out that the information is stronger.

When Megas-Russell and Witzberger asked participants what the community's strengths were in regard to community safety, many spoke highly of support from organizations such as The Root Social Justice Center and Out in the Open. People also spoke of supportive connections such as family, friends, local activities, and mutual aid networks.

But for many of the participants who identify as Black, finding positive community actions was difficult.

In response to a question about what in Brattleboro is working to support their safety, well being, and thriving, one Black community member said, “I would say not much.”

When asked about threats to community safety, the top responses from participants of all identities were systemic racism and white supremacy, police and policing, and opiates and addictions.

One Black community member said, “[I] can't speak my mind here and say what needs to be said. They focus on censoring you instead of actually listening to the harm they are causing you. Stop blaming black people for everything. Actually do something for us for once.”

An LGBTQIA+ community member said, “If police are an option for safety for an institution, I cannot utilize that institution.”

Mental health issues

Regarding their experiences with the mental health system, community members described the system with such words as “torture,” “unsafe,” “inadequate,” or “ineffective.”

One person said, “Our experiences often happen behind closed doors. We aren't even allowed to have our phones to record it. So it's hard for people to see what happens to us.”

Another person who identified as neurodivergent, psychiatrically-labeled, or mad said, “Our needs for safety are not being discussed - instead, it's about how the community needs safety from us. I'm in distress so I must be posing a threat. Fear is often prejudice. The changes that need to happen are really big and cultural.”

Community members who had interacted with the state Department of Children and Families as children, foster parents, and parents who had experienced an intervention by DCF staff also shared their experiences. Though a small number, respondents still shared experiences of trauma, dishonesty, racism, classism, and a lack of accountability.

One respondent said, “Social services need more training about racism and diversity. Children should not be punished for their parents' poverty. Indigenous people should not be removed and put in white households. The solution isn't to remove people from their own poor community, but to give that community more resources.”

Another participant said, “They took my child hours after they were born and no one would tell me why. There was no warning, no support. The only reason I was given was prior DCF involvement when I was a youth. So they did this to me by putting me in foster care, and now they do it again by putting my kid in foster care, just like they did to me?”

Community members also shared what safety meant to them and suggested ways to create a stronger, healthier community that served everyone.

A community member who identified as a non-Black specified person of color said, “Safety means that the entire community ensures people's physical, mental, and emotional needs are met and supported. That people of all identities and backgrounds can exist in the same space without fear of being targeted, harassed, assaulted, or killed by anyone else in the community. Safety means personal autonomy and collective care.”

Respondents also offered suggestions, among them the need for enacting new ordinances, adding more crosswalks; creating a “freak out/drop in space” that is open around the clock, and recruiting advocates to help people interact with systems such as mental health, police, or DCF.

Daring to imagine

In a separate interview, Witzberger said that she has felt inspired by some thought leaders' discussions about being imaginative.

Often imagination is considered “whimsical or frivolous,” Witzberger said. But when moving toward a new horizon, imagination is “vital and pragmatic.”

“The haphazard decisions, and intentional harm - it's very intentional, yes - of our ancestors will continue on as the default unless we do some very pragmatic imagining about what else is possible,” Witzberger said. “And we have heard a lot of pragmatic imagining from the community, which I have been very inspired by.”

At the Jan. 5 Selectboard meeting, Chair Tim Wessel made a brief suggestion to the board about dividing the recommendations into three categories and taking action on them.

The board would try to complete items in the first category by the end of January; the next group of items, before Annual Representative Town Meeting in March. Items in category three would have to wait for the reorganization of the new Selectboard after town elections in March.

Wessel reminded the public that no board can legally bind the actions of future boards, meaning the current board can't force future boards to take specific actions regarding the safety review process. But it also means that a future board can't forbid another board from implementing the recommendations.

Witzberger strongly told the board not to “push off responsibly” onto a new board, some of whom might not have gone through, or been committed to, the months-long safety review process. Instead, she recommended that the current board members commit to a direction for the town to go in.

“You must commit to direction of change or people will be pissed,” she said. “Please don't push it off to the next people. That would be very dismissive.”

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