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Thursday, March 21, 2002 - 12:41:59 AM MST
Mediators set to bridge town-police gap Justice Department team to troubleshoot community relations problems
By ANNIE HUNDLEY
BRATTLEBORO -- A Department of Justice group, a sort of community relations swat team, could arrive in Brattleboro as early as next week.
The department's Community Relations Service (CRS) team has been invited to the town by acting Police Chief John Martin, whose proposal was approved by the selectboard Tuesday night.
The proposal marks a significant step as the police department reaches out to community members.
Selectboard Chairman Greg Worden said the series of meeting will be an opportunity to address a wide variety of issues.
"(The issues) may be drugs or how to alleviate the burglary situation that has been in the news in the past few weeks," Worden said. "You would not start with major, major things necessarily, but build up to what are perceived as major problems."
CRS will arrive in the aftermath of the Dec. 2 police shooting of Robert Woodward at the All Souls Unitarian Church.
Worden said the shooting was not necessarily the impetus for Martin's invitation. Rather, he said, it is a continuation of outreach Martin began with Elliot Street neighborhood and merchants' associations.
"Does it pertain to the Woodward shooting or could it pertain?" Worden asked. "Sure. I don't think it is the driving force behind this, though."
He said the police department has had positive response from its efforts on Elliot Street.
"(The associations have) gotten an assurance that the police are cognizant of their problems and are willing to take action on their problems," Worden said. "And police have gained better understanding of problems the community faces."
CRS will meet with Martin within two weeks, Worden said, and the first public meeting could occur within a week after that.
The CRS division was developed to serve as an impartial mediator between community members and a town government, school district or police department.
"During civil unrest, CRS helps to restore stability by opening the communication channels between law enforcement and community residents," the department's Web site states. "Once stability is restored, CRS provides technical assistance and training to avert new violence and improve police-community relations.
"Specifically, CRS works to institutionalize and sustain communications between law enforcement and community groups by establishing human relations commissions and community advisory groups."
CRS makes its services available to the police department free of charge and will initially help train a group of "agenda-free" facilitators from the community and police department, selected by Town Manager Jerry Remillard.
The CRS team would facilitate a kick-off session open to the public. Other sessions would follow in smaller working groups broken up from the first community meeting, led by the facilitators.
According to Martin, the small groups would meet about four times to discuss issues such as "personal views, the community's perspective, philosophical and broader perspectives, and eventually develop realistic recommendations to bring back to the larger group."
The community would gather once again in a "wrap-up" session designed to publicly announce recommendations to the department.
Martin told the selectboard on Monday that he was open to the potential results of such a process.
"There must, however, be a commitment from myself and the town administration to seriously consider all final recommendations and their consequences," Martin said. "There will be an expectation that this process will cause change and that the recommendations will be implemented when practical."
CRS services have quelled conflicts in other communities. The division has responded to a variety of scenarios, including racial conflict following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a rash of church burnings in the South in 1996 and 1997, and the shooting of an unarmed, fleeing man by police and subsequent community riots in Cincinnati in April 2001.
One of the focuses of the service is to address perceptions by the community that police used excessive force.
"Allegations of police misconduct and excessive use of force are triggering factors of civil unrest and can undermine law enforcement's ability to serve the community," the CRS Web site says.
Attempts to reach Remillard and CRS regional worker Frank Amoroso on Wednesday were unsuccessful.