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Vergennes to form panel to oversee police department

Even if our police force is perfect and brilliant it doesn’t mean they can’t have oversight.
— Councilor Mark Koenig

VERGENNES — After hearing from about 20 residents on Tuesday, the Vergennes City Council took the first steps toward forming a citizen review board to work with and oversee the Vergennes Police Department. 
The decision also followed a June 2 forum in which dozens discussed policing with Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, particularly in light of the recent national outcry over systemic racial bias in policing and the increase in city police spending in recent years.
Councilors after discussion backed unanimously the concept and agreed that Mayor Jeff Fritz should appoint a committee within a week to create a charge for a Vergennes citizen review board. 
Fritz said at the meeting he hoped to have that committee’s work completed and a citizen review board appointed and up and running within 30 days.
Residents said such a board could be modeled after similar ones in other Vermont cities, and Fritz said its composition would be “balanced and fair.”
Fritz and councilors said agreeing to form the panel did not imply a lack of support or any level of criticism for the generally highly regarded Vergennes Police Department. 
“I don’t see this in any way as an indictment of our police force,” Fritz said. “I see it as an opportunity for us to grow and learn.”
Councilor Mark Koenig said a citizen panel could help the department remain strong.
“Even if our police force is perfect and brilliant it doesn’t mean they can’t have oversight,” Koenig said.
A number of residents at the virtual meeting made the case for what several noted would be a budget-neutral review board.
Rebecca Rey and others agreed their interactions with the current members of the department had been positive, but Rey said that in the future personnel and leadership would inevitably change. 
“We will not always have these same people,” she said.
Others said while they might be comfortable dealing with Merkel and his officers, they knew of others who felt differently.
“Anecdotally, there are some issues in the way that the police department runs, not that they aren’t wonderful people,” said Maya Farrell, who added, “I know that not everyone feels that way.”
Zoe Kaslow said an overarching issue was that citizens “should have a voice in how our community is run and policed,” and she added, “folks experience the police differently,” especially based on race and sexual orientation.
Una Fonte said those who attended understand there is existing oversight, but citizens also need a seat at the table.
“Institutions can’t be expected to oversee themselves,” Fonte said. “People who experience the system should have a voice.”
Merkel defended his department’s record. He said in his 10-plus years his officers have received no direct complaints of racial bias, including from the Northlands Job Corps, which has many students of color; and only one unfounded complaint of excessive use of force. 
He said he insists his officers “enforce the laws fairly and equitably” and treat everybody with dignity and respect.
“I believe my officers have done that,” he said.
Merkel said no one has complained to him before last week despite many previous forums and opportunities. 
“If there is a problem in my department, I want to know about it,” he said. “I will stand behind my officers. I will stand behind my own record.”
Rey and others responded by saying some are reluctant to complain directly to the police, and Rey said Merkel shouldn’t be “defensive” about his department’s performance.
“This is about being pro-active,” Rey said. “This is about all of us being in this together.”
Merkel apologized if he sounded defensive, and reinforced that he remained committed to responding to community feedback.
“I welcome interaction with the public at every opportunity,” Merkel said.
Several residents raised the subject of a University of Vermont study conducted several years ago that alleged Vergennes and other state police departments disproportionately targeted “black and brown” drivers.
Merkel and some others in law enforcement believe the study’s methodology was flawed, while its author believes the study’s conclusions remain valid. 
But resident Nial Rele, a member of Residents of Addison County for Police Accountability, said that debate misses the point: The study, he said, should rather have been used to spark an examination of the issue of racial attitudes in Vergennes and elsewhere.
Rele posted a Zoom chat comment during the meeting suggesting that all should spend more time reflecting: 
“I take issue with this impression of our infallibility as a community and as a VPD.”   

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