City police-study panel eyes collaborative model

To some degree I feel this committee is trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
— Mel Hawley

VERGENNES — For the past few months a rebuilt Vergennes Citizen Review Board Exploratory Committee has been researching options for a possible citizen police advisory panel to present to the Vergennes City Council.
On Feb. 23 that study committee’s chair, Cheryl Brinkman, said a report detailing those options — notably ones that will lean more toward the advisory end of the scale — and their pluses and minuses was still “two or three months” away.
On Feb. 26 the seven-member committee met in an afternoon Zoom meeting to take input from Councilor and former city manager Mel Hawley, City Manager Ron Redmond, Police Chief George Merkel, and former city manager, councilor and newly elected Mayor Matt Chabot.
A few points of agreement emerged among the city officials and committee members about what role a Vergennes citizens’ advisory panel might play in the future.
Think “collaboration,” and not “oversight.”
For example, Chabot said based on his experience in Vergennes governance there didn’t seem to be a need for another layer of disciplinary structure.
But Chabot said he could see how the police department could work with a new panel to improve its image in the eyes of some in the community.
“I do feel there is an opportunity for this group to work collaboratively with the Vergennes Police Department towards improving the overall optics of what our police department brings to us,” Chabot said.
“I support our police department. I think we’ve got a very dedicated group. But I would caution focusing too much on punitive measures and more on the outreach and the officer on the street … walking the beat and community policing, and less of a militaristic police department and more of a small-town force.”
Committee member Jon Kidde said he had designed a generic survey for the committee members and the four city officials, plus former city manager and mayor Renny Perry, who did not make the Friday meeting.
Three of the city officials responded, as did all the committee members, Kidde said. The committee reached a consensus on at least one point.
“We are moving away from this adversarial oversight, and thinking we want more of a collaborative relationship and less of a hierarchical one,” Kidde said. 
Among the city officials that responded, there were two points agreed upon, he said: That it would be a good idea to hire a facilitator to run public meetings on police issues and to “collect community input and facility police-community communication,” and it was “not a priority to have any paid professional staff” work for a police advisory committee.

Redmond and Merkel both said oversight appeared unnecessary, and Redmond also addressed the fact that the police department and its supporters have been upset with a committee that in their view would look over the department’s shoulder.
“In this state we already have a mechanism for that (discipline),” Redmond said. “From a policeman’s view and a city manager’s view, there’s the world of oversight, and there’s the world of advisory. And for me they’re very distinctive, and that’s probably why you got the reaction you got.”
Merkel said he would welcome a committee that would improve his department and its relations with city residents.
“We’re always trying to improve our connection with the community, because that’s a key component of any law enforcement agency. Do I think we need an oversight committee, using the term oversight? No, I don’t. None of us do. Do any of us have any opposition to an advisory committee?” Merkel said. “None of us have any concern about that at all.”
Specifically, he said a committee that would operate public meetings to collect feedback and facilitate communication and allow citizens to ask questions would be a good idea.
“It’s important to people to understand what we’re all about, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and why we don’t do what we don’t do,” Merkel said.
“I think there could be benefit to an advisory committee that would work collaboratively, and I emphasize the word collaboratively, with the department. I think that’s going to be nothing but fruitful for the community and the department.”
Hawley, who has attended all the committee meetings, remained unconvinced. He said the committee had not answered the first part of its charge, which asks if “a citizen review board (is) necessary in Vergennes, and if so, why?’” 
“I really feel this committee seems to continue to overlook the first charge, and to me the first one is the most important one. Hawley said. “And the first part of this charge is about police officer conduct, and I can tell you as long as I’ve worked with the city of Vergennes … at least in my opinion, there is no problem with police conduct. And so to some degree I feel this committee is trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Committee members said the first study committee, formed early last summer, had addressed that question in its preliminary report in August, which stated, in part, “we agree that some form of citizen review/advisory body will be beneficial to the City of Vergennes.”
Committee member Mabrouka M’Barek said the final report to the city council would also address that part of the committee’s charge, adding the council would have the final say.
“In the report we will answer each question,” M’Barek said. “There is still a lot to gather, and we could very well at the end say, we don’t think you need it. Or we could say we think you need it, and here is how you could implement it. At the end of the day the council will vote and decide.”

Essentially, committee members said, they are doing homework for the council. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE, has been the study committee’s top source.
NACOLE compiles information about civilian police advisory panels from around the nation, including several in Vermont. The committee has evaluated models that might work in Vergennes, or whether a hybrid of different models might be preferable.
At the Feb. 23 council meeting, Brinkman described the committee’s work.
“What we are trying to do is do a lot of background research for you,” she said. “I think Mark (Koenig, a committee member) put it one time as it’s sort of an a la carte, so you can pick and choose, and then the rest will be up to you, the council, as for what moves forward.”
At the Feb. 26 meeting she elaborated on the forthcoming written report.
“We are doing research so that we can present the council with a variety of options,” Brinkman said. “And then allow the city council to choose what’s best for the city of Vergennes.”

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