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Committee backs Vergennes citizen police oversight

“We cannot ask police officers to deal alone with the impact of our socially divided and deeply racialized society.”
— Citizen Review Board Exploratory Committee report

VERGENNES — Should Vergennes form a community panel to help city officials oversee and work with the police department?

For the second time in 17 months the local committee charged with studying the question said “yes.”

The Citizen Review Board Exploratory Committee, or CRBEC, made its recommendation on Dec. 15 in a draft 76-page report sent to the city council and Manager Ron Redmond.

The committee, which the council re-formed in late 2020 after the first committee was hit by mass resignations, spent about a year researching and writing the report.

The initial CRBEC wrote a one-page report in August 2020 that stated simply, “As a Committee, we agree that some form of citizen review/advisory body will be beneficial to the City of Vergennes.” The brief summary asked for more time for a complete study.

The council granted the time to the reconfigured committee, and it produced a study that includes a history of policing in the nation and Vermont, a description of the state’s at-times racist past and present, and the difficult position in which the report states those factors put police departments.

See the full report online at tinyurl.com/2p9anz7p.

Its conclusions included:

“It is our expectation, though, that a group tasked with undertaking any recommendations of this report will not ‘oversee’ police, but rather will engage with law enforcement to mutually increase awareness, educate each other, and continue to help Vergennes be viewed as a safe and welcoming place for all of its residents and visitors …

“We propose that this group work alongside city government — and the community at large — to ensure accountability between the police and the people of Vergennes. The goal of a community review board should be to ensure ongoing fair and impartial policing that meets the needs of all people in Vergennes.”

The group suggests a panel that would include five to nine trained members and would:

  • Receive and review community complaints and refer “those it believes have merit for further investigation,” and assess the process and outcome. Specifically, a new committee could provide “a neutral party to file complaints with” because “Filing a complaint about the police with the police is not an ideal practice.”
  • Ensure “greater direct accountability to the community around long-term and systemic issues.”
  • Review “data and policy on a regular basis in order to make recommendations on policy and training, and look at “public input on policing issues” to make recommendations to the city council and manager.
  • Make “recommendations regarding complaints, policy, hiring processes, training, community outreach efforts.”
  • “Work with the VPD and the City Manager to decide what level of training is appropriate for committee members.”
  • “Aggregate, analyze, and compare police data; give regular updates to the City Council and the citizens of Vergennes,” and “make recommendations to the City Council after reviewing local policing data.”
  • “Ensure police budgets match Vergennes’ needs and financial capacities.” It states that 30% of the city’s budget goes toward law enforcement.

LARGER THEME

The report cites the study by University of Vermont Professor of Economics Stephanie Seguino that showed Black and Latinx drivers are stopped in Vergennes and elsewhere in the state at higher rates than white drivers, and her follow-up work that provided evidence that those stops resulted in more consequences for non-white drivers for similar offenses.

Central to the thesis of the CRBEC report is that society places an unreasonable burden on law enforcement, and that communities and their police forces can work together for the betterment of all:

“Members of law enforcement are often the first responders at scenes that highlight failed social safety nets. The failure of these safety nets is a compilation of history, policy, social norms, and marginalization that has resulted in disparate outcomes for marginalized people and people of color …

“Law enforcement should not and cannot be held responsible for these disparate outcomes; however, it is crucial that communities address and redress social and racial disparities that appear within its local law enforcement agencies and the governmental bodies that oversee them.”

The report states the “committee worked to understand how society collectively maintains racial hierarchies and socio-economic separation within Vermont and Addison County, and how that history and practice influence us today.”

It states that police and enforcement follow those on the margins of society:

“Any person stepping outside of the social or racial space they have been contained by our societal organization, will be identified and likely be policed. What we mean is that: any black, brown, Hispanic and other people of color venturing outside the Job Corps hill, outside apple orchards, outside dairy farms and outside the Shaw’s supermarket booth for international money transfer, will provoke a pause and a second-guessing: do they belong here?

“The same goes for the low socioeconomic, white working class venturing in businesses and places serving the higher social class.”

The committee concludes, “We cannot ask police officers to deal alone with the impact of our socially divided and deeply racialized society.”

However, it states in such a society “law enforcement will de facto disproportionately target people of color and underprivileged individuals regardless of which officer is on duty. The problem is not the result of the aberrant behavior of ‘a few bad apples.’ The problem is societal in nature, and therefore it is fundamental that the community be fully engaged in working with law enforcement for greater community accountability.”

MORE RESEARCH

Vergennes officials said they appreciated the CRBEC’s hard work, but said it was too early to talk about the substance of the report.

“I’m very grateful for what is obviously a significant amount of time and effort that went into the writing of the report by the committee,” said Mayor Matthew Chabot. “I’m very appreciative of the work that they did.”

Chabot said he would wait until other council members had a chance to absorb and discuss the report together at the council meeting on Jan. 25 before commenting further.

“I haven’t spoken to the council as a group because the council hasn’t had an opportunity to discuss or review it,” he said. “So although I may have some ideas on how to move things forward, I wouldn’t be ready to go public with that at this time.”

City Manager Ron Redmond said officials are still digesting the lengthy report they just received before the holidays and they want to hear directly from CRBEC members to “have a chance to talk about their report. I haven’t had chance to hear from them. They spent a lot of time on this.”

Redmond said he would recommend city officials take the CRBEC report under advisement while waiting for a report from a second ongoing study.

This past August the council voted to hire the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, to conduct a $30,000, six-month in-depth look into the city’s police needs, practices and current effectiveness.

The proposal approved described a “staffing study to determine whether personnel deployments, scheduling and delivery of police services effectively match personnel resources, community needs and demand. This project would involve a multi-faceted approach involving data collection and analysis.”

The IACP has been studying the internal workings of the Vergennes department and will be doing community engagement work in late February or early March. Redmond said a final report is likely to arrive by May, and at that point city officials can consider the CRBEC and IACP recommendations together.

Redmond said it will be critical to view the CRBEC report through the lens of the work now being done by the IACP, an organization with which he is familiar from his previous longtime work as the head of the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington and with the National Downtown Association.

Redmond said the IACP studies and consults with rural, suburban and urban communities across the country and is “on top of trends in policing nationwide.”

“Ultimately what is helpful right now is we’ve got the International Association of Chiefs of Police coming into town to do a workforce analysis,” Redmond said.

Redmond did address some of the racial elements of the report. He said one thing he learned in his previous work is how “implicit bias training” has been effective in law enforcement agencies across the U.S.

“I have confidence in our officers. My personal opinion is they’re a really good team, and I believe training can help,” Redmond said. “Whatever recommendations IACP makes, I have confidence we can fulfill then.”

The IACP will also consider the CRBEC report as part of its process, Redmond added.

“I appreciate the work that the citizens’ group has done,” he said “It’s very thorough. Is it exactly what our community needs right now? I don’t know. I need some more perspective. I’d like to hear from them, and I’d also like to hear from the IACP.”

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