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‘Defund the police’ arrives in Middlebury

If we care about the quality of life experience in our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, we must invest in our community services that work directly with these populations.
— email to Town of Middlebury from several people

MIDDLEBURY — More than a dozen people have asked officials here to redirect the Middlebury Police Department’s voter-approved $46,234 budget increase for fiscal year 2021, and to begin looking at ways to “defund” the MPD.
A national call for defunding police agencies has gained momentum since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Still, some Middlebury officials were surprised to see MPD targeted by the movement. 
Police Chief Tom Hanley, who has led the department for almost three decades, has established rigorous standards for new hires. And MPD was the first police agency in Vermont (in 2007) to adopt a “bias-free” policy with respect to foreign nationals — including the many migrant farm workers in Addison County. 
“I was a little taken aback, given all the hard work the police do around here,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said of the local defund effort. “Since I have been on the board, I can’t recall an issue we’ve had with our police department.”
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay last week confirmed a total of 16 emails from folks advocating for defunding Middlebury police, emails she provided to the Independent. Some of the emailers hail from Middlebury; others list home addresses in Bristol, Ripton, “the Middlebury area,” Starksboro and New Haven. At least one of the writers is a Middlebury College student.
Several of the defund letters use a common template, though certainly some are unique in their wording.
“I am writing to demand that the Middlebury Town Council adopt a city budget that prioritizes community well-being, and redirects away from the police,” reads a recurring opening to several of the letters. “In a town that’s 84% white, we must do more than explain the history of MPD’s efforts to reform.”
Middlebury has a seven-member selectboard (as opposed to a city council), and is a town — not a city.
“If we care about the quality of life experience in our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, we must invest in our community services that work directly with these populations,” the letter continues. “BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by the current economic and health emergency and are over-policed. Increasing the police force will only exacerbate our ongoing public health crises.”
The letter requests that the MPD’s fiscal year 2021 budget — approved by voters this past March as part of an overall Middlebury municipal spending plan of $1,722,824 — be “rejected,” with the funds redirected into community services such as health care, social services, senior services, food, housing and community legal aid.
“Please invest in our community, rather than law enforcement,” the requests conclude.
Another recurring ask within the defund letters is that the town “refuse the FY21 budget increase of $46,234 for the MPD and that you halt any funding that has already been approved in order to begin defunding the police immediately.”
Among the emailers who made that request is Middlebury resident Joanna Colwell, a leader of the grassroots organization Middlebury Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ.
“Systemic racism exists everywhere in the United States, including in all police departments,” Colwell’s email reads. “To act as though our community is immune to the scourge of racism is ignorant and inhumane.”
The Independent reached out to Colwell for additional details about the defund MPD campaign. She said that the letter-writing effort was not a SURJ Initiative, although a few of the letter-writers are also SURJ members. 
“We don’t have a spokesperson at this point,” she replied by email. “We are a group of Addison County residents who care about the community and want to work towards positive change. We will let you know when we have more to share.”
The letter/email-writing group appears to have roots on two separate Facebook pages.
One is known as the “#DefundThePolice: Middlebury Working Group.” As of Wednesday, it had 26 members. Janae Due was listed as its moderator.
Due, in a Tuesday afternoon email, said she had “no comment regarding defunding the Middlebury Police effort at this time.”
According to the Facebook site, the group describes itself as “a working group for Middlebury to work towards initiatives related to defunding the Middlebury Police Department. Please recognize your commitment to this, and be willing to put effort and time in to making a deliberate, intentional, and anti-racist change.”
SURJ’s Facebook page has also recently featured discussion about defunding MPD.
Ramsay conveyed the defund requests to the selectboard members near the end of their Tuesday, June 23, Zoom meeting. The board acknowledged the emails/letters and will make “defunding MPD” a discussion topic for a future meeting, a board member said.
Board members agreed, however, that they don’t have the power to alter the voter-approved police budget, Selectman Victor Nuovo said on Wednesday.

SOME POLICE STATISTICS
Ramsay and her colleagues have already assembled facts and figures about MPD in anticipation of a broader discussion with advocates for defunding. A “frequently asked questions” column about the department can be found at tinyurl.com/ydbu4gg6.
The MPD, according to the FAQ:
•  Has 15 uniformed officers, including nine patrol officers, three patrol supervisors, one investigator, a chief and a school resource officer.
•  Responds to between 4,000 and 6,000 calls each year.
•  Has 1.8 officers per 1,000 Middlebury residents. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report Statistics, the average staffing ratio for communities of up to 10,000 citizens is 3.5 officers per 1,000 people.
Middlebury’s police budget has increased by an average of 3.52% annually during the past six years, according to Ramsay.
Residents at the March town meeting earmarked a combined total of $204,422 in assistance to 24 health/social service entities that serve Middlebury residents. That was a bump of $73,720 — or more than 30% compared to this year.
•  Would have to “triage every aspect of its operations” if its budget was significantly reduced.
“The largest part of the budget is personnel costs,” Hanley wrote as part of the FAQ. Reduction in personnel, depending on the extent, means periods of time with no one on duty… The department would move to a fully-reactive agency; proactive efforts like traffic enforcement would decline, if not stop altogether.”
Diverting police funding to social services wouldn’t reduce the need for law enforcement, Hanley asserted. He explained social service organizations — such as the Counseling Service of Addison County — often seek help from Middlebury officers.
“We’ve long sought an embedded clinician to work with the department, but funding hasn’t been available,” he said.
Hanley expanded on his views about police defunding in an email exchange with the Independent.
“Defunding as a means of replacing the police with ‘something’ else, such as a form of community service or some other public safety response, doesn’t fix what the writers perceive as the problem,” he said.
“Community service as an adjunct, would be helpful,” he added. “A supplement, not supplanting. I reject completely the notion that Middlebury PD engages in systemic racism and I’m not going to engage in a debate over it. Defunding reduces all the things needed to overcome the perception. For one it’s a reduction in force, if defunded at the level that national calls for defunding desire, it means the elimination of a full one-third of the police department. That means the elimination of police service between midnight and 8 a.m. The claim that a response to mental health and inebriation calls other than the police will be more effectively handled by something else is debatable.”
Hanley estimated mental health-related calls account for around 4.5% of the department’s total calls, yet they are “some of the most time consuming.” The other 95% of the MPD’s calls for service largely involve alarms, fights, noise disturbances, traffic crashes, retail thefts, larcenies, animal complaints, ordinance violations, assaults, fires, general social disorder and suspicious activity.
“Defunding leaves a void and creates the need for the police to triage response or, as with the state police, limit their response to crimes,” he said.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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