Bristol selectboard adopts unbiased policing policy

BRISTOL — The Bristol selectboard on Monday received an update on the town green playground project, filled a town office vacancy and adopted an unbiased policing policy drafted by Police Chief Kevin Gibbs.
Gibbs also commended one of the department’s officers for the officer’s role in the recent arrest of a knife-wielding alleged robber.
Recreation Director Darla Senecal and playground committee members Krista Siringo and Jill Kopel presented the update on the Bristol Green Playground Project.
The trio brought samples of the artificial turf surface that will be used for the new playground. This surface, while more expensive than natural grass, will allow for children who use mobility aids to enjoy the playground.
“It’s wheelchair accessible, for anyone with mobility issues, and looks the most like the park now,” Senecal said.
Senecal said the surfacing will last at least 10 to 15 years, while high-traffic areas, such as the bottom of slides, could be replaced as needed, as they are likely to wear sooner.
Selectboard member Joel Bouvier asked why the existing swing set can’t be cut down and re-used for the new playground.
Senecal said organizers were told that playground manufacturers would not refurbish old equipment because of insurance liability.
Bouvier said he’d like to see the swings dug up and installed somewhere else in town, and Senecal said she was open to that idea.
Senecal said Tuesday that organizers are still soliciting donations and grants, which have totaled around $80,000 so far. They hope to raise another $20,000 before breaking ground, which Senecal estimates will happen in August, two months after originally planned.
A fundraiser by Cubbers restaurant in downtown Bristol has been a big success, Senecal said. Each Tuesday, the restaurant donates 25 percent of each bill to the playground project.
“It’s a great fundraiser that’s very local,” Senecal said. “It’s been as much as $300-400 per night.”
The town zoning board must also approve the project before it can be built. Senecal said organizers will meet with the board on May 27. She added she is optimistic the board will approve the project, which has been endorsed by Bryant and the selectboard.
The board also unanimously approved the impartial policing policy that Gibbs presented at the meeting. Gibbs said that such policies became popular in departments across the state after a 2010 traffic stop by state troopers generated controversy after police detained the two men in the vehicle after discovering they were not in the U.S. legally.
The troopers were cleared of any wrongdoing, and Vermont State Police adopted a non-biased policing policy in 2011.
“All it does say is that we have to be fair to everyone,” Gibbs said. “I included age in there because we’re sometimes accused of picking on high school kids.”
Gibbs said under this policy, town police will keep more detailed records about the people they come into contact with, such as their ethnicity and national origin. Gibbs said this increased documentation will make it easier to coordinate with other law enforcement organizations such as the FBI, which already require this information.
Bryant said keeping these statistics can project the department if someone does file a bias complaint.
Gibbs said his officers are not clouded by bias, and even if they wanted to target specific groups, it would be very difficult.
“It’s really hard to tell what someone’s national origin is when they’re coming at you at 55 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone at night in the dark,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs shared with the selectboard a letter of commendation he had written for Officer Josh Otey for his role in catching a man who on March 30 allegedly held up the Big Wheel Variety Store with a knife.
Gibbs said that Otey foiled the suspect’s escape plan when he arrived on the scene within minutes of the crime.
“You took initiative to begin an immediate response to the scene while alerting other units to the incident,” Gibbs wrote in the letter. “The escape plan of the suspect was thwarted when the robber and the occupants of the getaway car panicked when they either saw or heard you responding.”
Gibbs told the selectboard that the case would have been hard to crack without Otey’s actions, as the suspect had concealed his face while in the store.
“If Josh hadn’t gotten there when he did, it would have been very difficult to solve,” Gibbs said. “I think the letter of commendation is well-deserved.”
Gibbs also shared an email from Trooper Andrew Leise, who praised Otey and Sgt. Randy Crowe for getting the suspect to admit to other thefts.
In total, Gibbs said Bristol police and VSP arrested five suspects in connection with a series of related thefts in March. All have been arraigned and are awaiting court dates.
In other business, the selectboard:
• Appointed Gary Clark to a vacancy on the planning commission. There is still one open seat on the planning commission and another on the zoning board, and the selectboard is seeking interested candidates for both.
• Decided it will conduct the hiring process for a new town administrator. Current administrator Bill Bryant announced in March that he will retire at the end of April. Candidates for that position are asked to submit résumés by April 18.

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