Brattleboro will hire private security for downtown

Selectboard initiates program for parking garage and other municipal properties

BRATTLEBORO — Private security guards will soon be patrolling the Transportation Center, Brooks Memorial Library, the Gibson-Aiken Center, and the Municipal Center following a unanimous June 6 Selectboard vote to hire the outside help.

First proposed several weeks ago, the proposal to augment the local police presence came after a carjacking at knifepoint in the parking garage and residents raised a hue and cry that something be done.

The decision to hire unarmed, private security to help ease public safety concern is one recommended by Police Chief Norma Hardy.

The town will now contract with Securitas, a global security firm that employs 8,000 people worldwide, for $39 per hour for a total of $2,184 per week to cover the garage from 3 to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Keene-based Hill Street Security will charge $35 per hour - a total of $1,960 per week - to cover the library, municipal, and recreation centers from 2 to 10 p.m.

The parking system has been estimated to bring in about $650,000 per year in revenue to the town.

Town Manger John Potter said he and staff members appreciated a priority of a recent Selectboard retreat of “making the transportation center a good place, and especially a good place for parking, and we are already on it.”

He said the Department of Public Works is taking steps to help the situation and staff members are keeping the lights on at all times, limiting access to the elevator at night, and putting a “strong effort” into daily cleaning, upkeep, and repairs.

A new camera system is also being installed and lighting has been improved.

Calling it “an innovative approach to create order out of the chaos our Transportation Center has become,” board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said she supports and applauds the move.

She said that crimes need to be witnessed to produce arrests, and adding private security will help “provide witness and evidence” for arrests as “an interim measure” until a full police force can be mustered.

She said she sees it also as a deterrent to crime and noted that many crimes in town are against “women and children” and this will help create “the eyes and ears for the police.”

Board member Peter Case called the measure “long overdue” and said he thinks a majority of “what's driving folks crazy” are the crimes “that can't be put in a spreadsheet.”

“It's just time to stop, and I think just having a presence will eliminate that, at least from our downtown area,” Case said.

Board member Franz Reichsman said he was “initially skeptical,” and asked how the initiative will be supervised.

Assistant Police Chief Jeremy Evans said he and the chief had a “lively” conversation about hiring security officers who are not police officers as well as hiring officers from the Windham County Sheriff's office.

They decided against the latter, “mostly” to offer the town more control over law enforcement activities, he said.

“Every community is different,” Evans said, adding that both companies' hires will be supervised by the police department.

“We don't want them doing law enforcement activities. We want them providing a solid presence and reporting back to us,” he said.

Evans said police want a consistent and positive presence during the hours when people “perceive” the garage is most unsafe “and when we see problems occurring.”

The town expects five candidates for the force to be at the Vermont Police Academy this summer.

Board member Daniel Quipp, who had started an online discourse that saw dozens of comments, said it “remained to be seen” if spending $113,000 per year on the private detail will prove successful but said that it is worth a try.

“I think we should have curiosity about the needs of people who are in that location and not just say, 'Move along,'” he said.

Quipp noted that such needs might include access to a bathroom or shade, for instance, and said the board should consider investing in public restrooms and parks.

However, said Potter, this is a pilot program and not set in stone for any amount of time.

He noted that the new cameras and new officers later may “change the picture for how we manage an area like this.”

Potter suggested the program be re-evaluated in 8 to 10 weeks.

Until then, the security details, estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, will be paid from the general fund.

Public responds to the plan

“My head wants to explode,” said resident Dick DeGray, responding to what he described as “the hypocrisy I've heard here tonight.”

“The only reason you are reacting to the cries from the public for over a year is because somebody pulled a knife on somebody,” the former longtime board member said. “No action is your action plan.”

DeGray went on to say that there's a “lot more activity” going on than at the facilities the private duty force will cover.

Hill Street Security owner John Raffensberger said the private security presence will have an immediate effect.

“It's like cockroaches running away when you turn the light on,” he said of the results he's seen elsewhere when his company comes to a situation.

“I think it will have a positive effect,” said Michelle Simpson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Brattleboro. “Putting security in there is just standard best practice. This is not some outlandish proposal [...] and it really is a crime deterrent.”

“We will feel the effects of this every day,” she said.

Resident Casey Viato asked for data regarding crimes against women and children in the downtown area. She also requested talking more about the Community Safety Review and how the Community Safety Fund could be used to create more resources for people.

Resident Ivan Hennessy said he'd heard from an officer that most incidents he has heard about were ticket-able offenses and now, “I'm hearing about human trafficking.”

“I think the conversation has drifted,” he said, noting he has gone to the garage with gloves, flashlight, and containers and collected some syringes. He's been walking around town for several months “finding hot spots” where there are syringes and asking people let him know where they may be.

“People see threats that aren't there; there are lots of threats that are there,” he said. “A piece of orange plastic gets treated as a biohazard but it's an easy thing to solve without spending tens of thousands of dollars.”

He suggested accessible restrooms and sharps collection containers would help with the issues of dropped syringes and people defecating and urinating in the parking garage.

Actual safety concerns are real and need to be addressed, Hennessy said, but they are “being conflated with the 'ickiness,' the ickiness of seeing people we don't like to see, smelling things we don't like to smell.”

Fhar Miess, also a town resident, said he finds the pilot program anything but “innovative,” calling it “something straight out of the Nixon administration, something that's been tried for decades and decades and decades and it's not working.”

He said he didn't think the firm chosen would serve the town well and hoped the decision would be reconsidered.

A woman named Emma attended the meeting in person and spoke, saying she was the carjacking victim and thanking the town and community for its support in the aftermath of that incident.

She said she appreciated the “alternative perspectives and creative solutions” being offered, including community outreach and providing shade and restrooms, and said that would do a lot more to change the situation from what the parking garage has become.

Robin Morgan expressed her disappointment in “how quickly initiatives like this” are able to be implemented while the board has been “sitting on” the Community Safety Review Board's recommendations for a long while without acting.

She also said she was disturbed to hear Raffensberger's apparent comparison of people to cockroaches but admitted he “had a point.”

“People are going to flee the space, if they have a perception that what they were planning on doing there is going to not be possible,” she said. “But they're not going to vanish and neither are the things that drove them to whatever the thing was that they wanted to do in the parking garage. They're just going to go to a different place in the town.

“So we're not solving any crime here - we're just moving it to a different place,” she said. “Those causes of those crimes still exist, and they're not going to be solved until we do something that creates more safety for people and meets more needs, not just creating a perception of safety.”

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