City council seeks group to oversee police

I’ve been intimidated by people in town government and by city employees. I don’t want other people to have the experiences I’ve had.
— Catherine Brooks

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council and more than five dozen people discussed the need for a citizen group to oversee the city police force in a July 16 meeting that started off with the resignation of Mayor Jeff Fritz.
Despite the hullabaloo caused by Fritz’s resignation (see story on Page 1A), the Zoom meeting drew an exchange of views among the estimated 75 attendees on the proposed police panel.
This past Thursday’s discussion followed a July 14 council meeting at which two residents, Matt White and Ivan St. George, said the police oversight committee was not needed. St. George repeatedly asked all in attendance to “cite one single incident” that would have required investigation. 
White delivered the same message on Tuesday and Thursday, that the committee was an unnecessary and possibly expensive government expansion that would find problems where none existed. 
“Government is best that governs least,” White said. “Be careful what you wish for.”
But most voices at the better-attended Thursday meeting backed the work of the committee as a chance for greater citizen input into police operations and a way to build better rapport between city police and residents.
Committee members dismissed criticism from some in the community that Fritz had stacked the committee with pro-advisory panel members and was trying to guide its work. Committee members are Chairwoman Catherine Brooks, Maya Farrell, Cory Foote, Alicia Grangent, Nial Rele, Michael Donnelly (Acting Mayor Lynn Donnelly’s husband), Bryan Goodkowsky and Scott Gaines.  
“Jeff Fritz invited me to be on this, and then he went blank. That’s the last I heard from him,” said Brooks, who resigned her position during Thursday’s meeting, citing the effect of ongoing stress on her health.
Committee members also challenged Council member David Austin’s assertion that it had been a tremendous disservice not to have held a publicly warned first meeting. 
The committee was first appointed by Fritz as a working group that did not have to warn meetings, then the day after its first meeting was changed to a council-appointed committee that would warn meetings and keep publicly available minutes.
Members of the committee who spoke said their first meeting was purely organizational and noted the council’s quick action to change course.
“The error has been fixed. We’re doing it right. So let’s move on from that,” Goodkowsky said.
Goodkowsky and others also said a new complaint system to report issues with the police department developed by city officials was well-meaning, but the fact that reports went to the department was not helpful. 
“That’s not a friendly way to do it. That’s not a comfortable way to do it. So table that,” Goodkowsky said.
Resident Abigail Blum said the group is approaching the assignment fairly, and referred to the council’s July 14 decision not to give the group more time to complete its task. 
“They were a hard-working, open-minded, intelligent group that were committed to bringing their best skills,” Blum said. “They’re looking at it from all angles, not just one … It’s extremely important we give them the time they need,”
Resident Zoe Kaslow also asked that the committee have as much time as it needs.
“It’s not something that can happen in a month,” Kaslow said. “It’s going to take and hard conversations.”
Resident Rebecca Rey wondered why the police department didn’t welcome a citizen advisory board.
“I’m surprised our police force is not excited to have this collaboration … which should only highlight the superb job they’re doing,” Rey said. “This is a change asked for by a group of very thoughtful people that only hopes to improve relations with our police force.”
Former councilor David Small disagreed that considering a committee should hurt the department morale, saying that concept sold sort the officers in the department’s commitment and professionalism. Small said a certain amount of public second-guessing comes with any high-profile public position. 
“I believe our police officers are strong and able professionals. I keep hearing this discussion about a review board, more discussion about policing in Vergennes, may be hurting their feelings, lowering morale,” Small said. “I frankly think this infanticizes our officers. They didn’t get into this line of work because it was going to be an easy job.”
Brooks said one argument for an advisory panel is that it can be difficult to approach police and other municipal officials with complaints and suggestions, and she cited her own experiences, even with people she at the same time praised for their work and personalities. 
“I’ve been intimidated by people in town government and by city employees,” Brooks said, citing examples that included town managers, mayors and police. “I don’t want other people to have the experiences I’ve had.
“I believe we need to have some sort of advocacy group in this town so that people who have minority news, some sort of alternative views, can state them and can be honored for their opinion, and they can have their opinion dealt with.”
Rele questioned Merkel’s response to the 2017 “Black and Brown” study led by a University of Vermont professor that showed Vergennes’s statistics by race in handling traffic stops were the worst in the state. Some criticized the study’s methodology, including Merkel, but a 2018 update reached the same conclusion.
Rele said there was “nothing to suggest … the 2017 report is by any means flawed,” and added, “the first thing the police chief did was to support a study to discredit the work of these professors.”
Merkel disagreed with the language that “the first thing he did” was challenge the study. He said he met with the primary author and others to discuss the findings.
Merkel first said he neither endorsed nor opposed a police advisory board, calling it “up to the city council,” but said that Rele’s assertion was “unfair and a mischaracterization of the way I felt.”
And he defended his officers.
“There are many, many instances where these people have reached out to people of all colors and choices in life and treated them with the utmost respect and courtesy,” Merkel said. “I will not let anybody make inferences that there is a racist bone in any of our bodies.”
In his email to the Independent Rele suggested the Merkel and other officers should sit down with the committee. 
“We welcome all voices to our meetings,” he wrote. “The VPD, too, has the opportunity to not only be a participant in the process, but a leader in this conversation. Vergennes — let’s shut out the distractions and do the work together.”

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