Brattleboro takes a step to improve community safety

By month’s end, a working group hopes to hire a new consultant

BRATTLEBORO — This summer, Selectboard members have chosen the start of a path forward for the Community Safety Review that will come to fruition in about a year.

In July, the board voted unanimously to adopt one of four options that had been put forth.

The chosen plan includes hiring an independent consultant and incorporating at least one study session around at least two public forums to help review policy issues.

It also extended the timeline from February to June 2024 as "a goal, not a requirement" so as to allow adjustment and ensure full community involvement.

The plan also includes a close look at the Community Safety Review (CSR) report commissioned by former Town Manager Peter Elwell in 2021.

Current Town Manager John Potter said the group working on the safety project will start on Aug. 9 to look at hiring a consultant.

"I've been starting to figure out how to do that," he said on Aug. 8. "I have a team meeting [on Aug. 9] with town staff working on this project, and we'll be doing that. I expect in the next month or so we'll get that done."

Asked what qualifications he's looking for in a safety consultant, Potter said he has two major areas of interest: focusing on first response and alternative approaches to first response, informed by best practices from across the country and by co-production feedback from across the community.

The consultant's fees would be funded through the Community Safety Fund, and the person would assist with an independent evaluation of past work, review current data and policy, and help development a community-involved Community Safety Implementation Plan.

"I'm looking for somebody with expertise, particularly, in alternative first response," Potter said.

That means that when a crisis call comes in, that person is knowledgeable to have "a different approach than just sending police," he said.

"I'm also interested in someone who is good about police data analysis and management," Potter said, pointing out that the topic was flagged in the initial CSR report as an area of concern and in the years since the town has made big improvements.

"Those are two areas where I feel having some experience and outside expertise would really help," Potter said.

He's also "trying to get to speed" regarding the 2021 report to understand the circumstances behind the thinking then and to prepare to update the approach to take current circumstances into consideration and offer a plan that's going to be "broadly supported by the community."

During a July 11 discussion, Selectboard member Elizabeth McLoughlin echoed the thought that the needs of the community have changed in the two years since the report was submitted.

She applauded aspects of Potter's alternatives, supporting the chosen path.

Potter noted that some items from the CSR report can't be done legally by the town. He said the focus should be on the needs of those impacted by policing to determine what is practical and doable and to adopt a way forward that the whole community can support.

To that end, two study sessions will be scheduled. One will occur before a consultant would start, and it will focus on what the board wants to learn before moving forward.

Selectboard member Franz Reichsman said it would be a good idea to move slowly and purposefully, noting the importance of the issue. He also said he hopes everyone speaks their minds at the meetings.

Board Chair Ian Goodnow also expressed support for this direction, noting the effort will require expertise the Selectboard doesn't necessarily have.

Goodnow said he hopes the outcome will provide clear, actionable items that will help move the town in the right direction.

After the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police in Minneapolis, a national reckoning about race and the role of law enforcement took place in the United States. Brattleboro hired facilitators Shea Witzo and Emily Megas-Russell at a cost of $40,000 and established a committee to explore community safety.

The Jan. 1, 2021 report advocates reforming the Brattleboro Police Department's complaint system, acknowledging systemic racism, strengthening support networks and structures, and examining how to help meet people's basic needs.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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