An effort to include civilians in reviewing activity by Arlington police is moving toward Town Meeting, but not without a bump in the road.
The Select Board on Wednesday, Feb. 23, voted unanimously to support the recommendation of a committee to create a noninvestigatory board aimed at improving trust. An amendment passed, 4-1, with Len Diggins voting “no,” addressing the issue of whether law enforcement should be part of the panel. A motion by John Hurd excluded current and former members of Arlington police, but left open the option to include others members of law enforcement.
Board Chair Steve DeCourcey noted that wording can change before a final vote, to occur before Town Meeting.
A number of members of the public pushed back against including law enforcement. Some are connected to Arlington Fights Racism, a group formed in 2019 in the aftermath of publication of racists statements by Lt. Richard Pedrini in October 2018. The group has sought public oversight of town police, and the 2020 Town Meeting agreed to create a study group.
Police chief endorses
Laura Gitelson, a study committee cochair, told the Select Board that police Chief Julie Flaherty had endorsed the panel’s recommendation to establish a permanent civilian board whose focus is not to investigate but to improve connections between the police and public, “particularly, though not solely, those who belong to historically marginalized groups.”
From March 18, 2021, the study committee met 16 times. Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 17, 2021, the committee held 14 listening sessions with residents and town employees to solicit feedback on interactions with Arlington police. Among the key findings:
● The Arlington Police Department is professional, proactive and conducts its business in accordance with the principles of 21st-century policing.
● Some residents who are BIPOC, LGTBQIA+ and/or living with a disability and who experience negative interactions with Arlington police are deeply reluctant to report those experiences to police.
● The official process for sharing complaints and/or commendations about resident interactions with police does not meet the needs of all residents.
● Feedback collected during the listening sessions with residents was overwhelmingly positive toward Arlington police, with the stipulation that trust needs to be improved between residents and police.
Susan Ryan-Vollmer, another cochair, provided examples of public interaction with town police, one positive, one she described as “harrowing.” In the latter, a woman had fallen to the floor, and a town officer, called to the scene, refused to help her up.
Later, Diggins asked whether homophobia was involved. Ryan-Vollmer said she did not know.
The study panel’s work drew much support from Select Board members, including Eric Helmuth, who said he appreciated how the group listened.
As to whether members of law enforcement should be part of the group, Chief Flaherty said the panel “would miss an opportunity” if a retired officer were not included.
Helmuth asked Flaherty whether officer should be from town, or not, and the chief responded “out of town.”
Jillian Harvey, who is the director of equity and inclusion for the town and member of the study group, called her involvement “inspiring.” She said she does not favor including law enforcement.
Hurd called report “a step in the right direction.”
Diggins asked: “How do you respond to those who say this [report] does not go far enough?” Cochair Sanjay Newton cited the extensive research done to back the committee’s conclusions.
4 question participation
Among the responses from the public, after Susan Stamps said she was impressed, four speakers suggested that a police officer not be on the panel.
Three are steering Committee members of Arlington Fights Racism: Elizabeth Dray, Robin Bergman and Lynette Culverhouse. A fourth, Sarah McKinnon, echoed Dray, emphasizing the word “civilian” in the group’s title. “We need to uplift those who need to be heard,” she said.
The Select Board discussed whether a police officer, current or former, should included. Diggins commented that if the recommendation goes to Town Meeting including an officer, the meeting will reject it.
Hurd offered two amendments, and the board voted on the second one, 4-1. The main motion, to support the committee’s recommendation passed, 5-0.
Other business at the Feb. 23 meeting will be reported.
Watch the whole Feb. 23 board meeting on ACMi: