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Reporter Debrief: Two Vermont Communities Embarked On Police Reform. Here's How It's Going

A gray sign with blue letters reads Brattleboro Police Department against a snowy background
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
VPR checked in on two parallel efforts to reform policing in Brattleboro and Burlington.

Two communities at opposite ends of Vermont are pushing forward with efforts to reform their police departments. The moves come in the wake of last year's national reckoning with racial equity and policing, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer.

Today, we're checking in on where things stand in these efforts – in Brattleboro and in Burlington.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Vermont Public Radio reporters Liam Elder-Connors and Howard Weiss-Tisman for an update on these parallel pushes for reform. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, Howard, the Brattleboro Selectboard met on Tuesday night to have their first real discussion about a report that the town commissioned on what it called “community Safety" – and this is over 200 pages. So what did the board do on Tuesday?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Well, the board mostly listened on Tuesday. They heard from the public and continued hearing from some of the folks who put it together.

Most immediately, the board has to make a decision about the upcoming town budget. There's something in there about police training, and the committee is asking the town to zero out any training in the coming year. This is what Lana Devers said – she is a member of the committee who put the report together:

“Just like the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the police force is going to be heavily disagreed upon by a subset of the population. But we cannot allow ourselves to listen to those people, because they are doing the work of slavers. They are doing the work of oppressors at the risk and at the detriment of the lives of Black people."

- Lana Devers, Brattleboro

Howard – just remind us: how did we get here? Why did the Brattleboro Selectboard commission this report in the first place, on policing and racism in the department? And what did we learn from the report?

Weiss-Tisman: Right. So this goes back to earlier this year, when Black Lives Matter protests sprang up across the state, including in Brattleboro.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled out Brattleboro’s representative town meeting, and so, the town had to adopt an emergency budget in June. And at that point, the police department had a 12% [budget] increase. This was happening while the protests were happening. And a lot of people wanted Brattleboro, at that point, to zero out the police budget.

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A lot of people were upset about that, and so the board decided to go ahead and commission this report. They came up with some really radical proposals. They said that the town is really lacking in data collection. If an officer is facing discipline, they want to withhold pensions for the officer and not have any more paid leave. They're talking about things like not sending police out on welfare checks. And when police are out doing things like this, they don't want them to be armed. And most radically, they're calling for mostly disarming the police force within five years.

So some big changes being discussed there. Liam, let's go to Burlington. There's been a big debate about police accountability there and some major protests over the last couple of months. Can you remind us what's happened in terms of the size of the police force since last summer?

Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah, I mean, kind of similar to what Howard was talking about in Brattleboro, Burlington's also seen a huge debate go on over what sort of police reforms should be enacted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In the summer, the city council, led by Progressives, decided to adopt a measure that would cut the size of Burlington's police force by 30%, and it would do that through attrition. So as officers leave the force, they wouldn't be replacing them.

Actually, in the months since the council passed that measure, the department has seen nine officers leave. And five of them have said that actually the city council's decision around reducing the police force was one of the reasons why they decided to go.

The department in recent weeks has been sort of sounding the alarm that they're getting to low staffing levels. But as it stands, they can't really do anything about their staffing.

Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Progressive-led city council have pretty different ideas of who should be overseeing the police department. Is that right?

Yeah, that's right. Kind of after the issue of staffing, this has been the big – one of the big – issues debated in Burlington is: who should be in charge of oversight. And there is a police commission in Burlington, but its role is largely advisory.

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And so, the most recent effort was the Progressive-led city council decided to pass a proposal that would create a separate, new, independent police oversight board that would have sweeping powers to investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct.

When this passed the council, Mayor Weinberger vetoed the measure, saying that he had issues with the proposal and said he wasn't opposed to creating a new, stronger police oversight board, but the proposal as passed wasn't one he could support.

And for both of you, just looking ahead – Liam, let's start with you – what are we expecting with these proposals in this debate in Burlington in the next few months?

Elder-Connors: Well, progressives on the council tried to override Mayor Weinberger's veto. They were not able to do that. And so the measure won't go in front of voters. They're kind of back to the drawing board.

The mayor has proposed several things that they could do more immediately, like empowering the current police commission with the ability to do more investigation and discipline of officers.

But I should also note, you know, this is a year where Mayor Weinberger is up for reelection and the Progressives are running a candidate, City Council President Max Tracy. So that's another thing that could really change the direction of police reform, is who wins the March election.

And Liam, you've also been tracking some broader reforms being discussed at the state House. Is there anything in the works there that could change policing in the state?

Elder-Connors: There are several things that are kind of on the table right now, some of which were actually initiatives that Gov. Scott has been pushing, through an executive order he signed in the fall. And those are things like developing a statewide body camera policy. There's even, actually, a proposal to create some countywide citizen oversight boards.

So some of these things that Burlington and Brattleboro are talking about are also being discussed on a statewide level, although there still haven't been any concrete proposals put forward yet. Those are still in kind of in draft phases.

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And just finally, Howard, let's go back to you in Brattleboro. What are we expecting on the police reform front in the next few months?

Weiss-Tisman: So remember, all of these discussions are happening with so much uncertainty in our country and the violence that we saw down in Washington, D.C. and a lot of questions about what this upcoming weekend and inauguration might look like.

At the meeting in Brattleboro, Franz Reischsman, who's a resident who wasn't involved in writing the report, he said this:

“There are things going on in our country right now that I think demand police presence. I insist that our police here are ready to deal with what happens next Wednesday, when the inauguration takes place. Will there be some kind of crazy reaction to that by dangerous people in Brattleboro? I sure hope not. But I expect our police to be ready if it does happen.”

- Franz Reichsman, Brattleboro

Weiss-Tisman: And just one last thing I wanted to mention, is that three seats on the five-member Brattleboro Selectboard are up for election on Town Meeting Day. So it will be interesting to see if either side of this discussion puts a candidate forward, and ultimately what the people of Brattleboro decide.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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