Our Opinion: A new facility for a world-class department

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It's been a good week for the Brattleboro Police Department, with its transition from the Municipal Offices on Main Street to its new facility on Black Mountain Road running smoothly.

Last Friday, the department held an open house and gave the public free rein to walk around and inspect the changes to the building, which housed the Reformer after its own move from Main Street more than 30 years ago (Disclosure: The Reformer now rents a portion of the building that is completely independent of the police facility).

The renovation of the building was budgeted at just under $4.5 million, but the most recent accounting shows the project came in at just over $4 million, a savings of more than $400,000. While it's good news the project came in under budget, what's even better news is the police department now has a facility that the officers and town taxpayers deserve. It wouldn't be inappropriate to also note that the facility is also respectful to people brought into the building, whether they're a victim, a suspect, a family member or a complainant.

There was some concern that the department would no longer be on Main Street and citizen access to its officers would be limited by the move to Black Mountain Road. But the department has insisted its officers are in the community, not in the station. Just as was noted when the Vermont State Police closed its barracks in Brattleboro and moved to a new building in Westminster, today's law enforcement personnel have offices on four wheels and spend most of their time in those mobile offices, rather than at a desk.

Despite the move to its new facility, the Brattleboro Police Department faces challenges that are not unique to the town — especially finding qualified people to reach full staffing. While some law enforcement agencies can't hire new officers because of a backlash to their out-dated attitudes and policing methods, Brattleboro is, shall we say in the current lingo, a "woke" department. Over the past 10 to 15 years it has faced many of the challenges that some departments still struggle with but it has successfully overcome them.

Yes, some of the changes were hard, and some of them cost the town a pretty penny in settlement agreements. But rather than hunkering down in its bunker, the police department and its leadership listened to the community and its criticism — some of it deserved and some of it not — and updated its polices and procedures. It wasn't an easy process, balancing the very real needs of the community and the safety of police officers, but the department accomplished it, much to the credit of former Town Manager Barbara Sondag, former Police Chief Gene Wrinn, current chief Michael Fitzgerald and his second-in-command, Mark Carignan, past and present board members too numerous to name, and community members — including the volunteers on the Use of Force Committee — who stood up and demanded change.

Still, it's not an easy job, finding people who are representative of the community and who have the training and education that is necessary to deal with the myriad issues that have been shoved on to their shoulders due to a failure of our society to fully confront and address substance abuse and mental illness. Compensation is a big part of attracting good people, and Brattleboro is only average when it comes to pay. It starts at a little more than $38,000 a year and goes up to more than $63,000 a year depending on responsibilities and time in service.

What is remarkable about the most recent contract between the town and the New England Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the police officers, is the fact that when it came time to apportion raises, the upper echelons of the department took a smaller percentage than they could have asked for in exchange for a higher percentage for those lower in the ranks. This camaraderie and compassion for each other is emblematic of the department itself. These officers care about each other, their community and the people that walk through their doors, whether that's in handcuffs or in search of help.

Town Manager Peter Elwell noted that the town's top priority in negotiating a new contract was to increase entry level police officer pay so the department could attract and retain new officers. "We looked at several different ways to do that, but all either cost too much or insufficiently addressed the problem. By continuing to work together and sharing a commitment to arrive at a successful outcome, we did achieve the goal. That required senior officers and other NEPBA members to give up some of the pay increase the town was willing to offer them and it required the Select Board to approve an overall increase that was higher than originally proposed. Both sides recognized the importance and fairness of this compromise and the deal got done."

By working together, the town and its police department have done a great job in keeping people here — officers who truly care and are on a mission to protect and serve. We see them every day out on the beat and sometimes off-duty with their families and we know they are dedicated every single one of us. They, and the town's residents, are the best recruiting advertisement, as is the new facility.

Fitzgerald noted that the new facility is proof that everybody has a voice in Brattleboro. "When we say thank you, it's not just the folks who supported the police department. We don't want to forget the people who had very real concerns, and we addressed those concerns. Hopefully, we all can take pride in this new building. It shows that citizen participation works. Everybody can look at the new facility and say we had a piece of that."


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