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Great Barrington Selectboard denounces racism, initiates review of police practices

The goal of the reexamination of the role of the police is to “transform the police into a force for justice. We are not painting our Police Department with the same brush as other departments in other cities.” -- Selectboard member Leigh Davis

Great Barrington – By a unanimous vote Monday (July 13) the Great Barrington Selectboard – meeting remotely via a Zoom video link — declared itself – and the town – “unequivocally” opposed to “any manifestation of hatred and prejudice towards any group of individual and recognizes that systemic racism is a threat to public health and safety.”

The manifesto, drafted by Selectboard members Leigh Davis and Kate Burke, was in response, in part, to the June 6 Black Lives Matter rally in front of Town Hall during which more than 1,000 people gathered to decry systemic violence nationwide against the Black community symbolized by the death of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police. (To read the entire proclamation click here.)

By its proclamation the Selectboard pledged the town to join a nationwide self-assessment on the issue of racism and to “initiate a process of self-study on the history of race and racism in Great Barrington; to review and reform hiring practices to develop a more diverse staff, and to provide implicit bias, de-escalation, crisis intervention and other similar training for town departments.

At the same time, “the Town of Great Barrington supports the work of our Police Department, our Town government, and our schools, to make them more diverse, equitable and inclusive and commits to seeking further police and administrative measures in support of deepening our community’s understanding of systemic racism and the deep harm it causes,” the proclamation reads.

The Black LIves Matter rally at Great Barrington Town Hall on June 6. Photo: Lear Levin

The proclamation outlines four steps the Selectboard will undertake to root out systemic racism: advancing implementation of the 2017 Great Barrington Trust Policy and establishing a formal process to  address violations; initiating a self-study of “the history of race and racism in Great Barrington,” a study that will culminate in recommendations on how to identify the role of race and “take steps to make amends for past injustices and highlight the positive”; and reviewing personnel  policies of all town departments.

The role of the Great Barrington Police Department calls for “additional oversight,” according to the new initiative.

The Selectboard is to create a “working group” that will reflect the needs of the community and review “current practices and policies, and, if necessary, make recommendations, to establish department transparency and accountability, and how to handle allegations of misconduct.”

The board further resolved to support “state and federal police reform efforts,” such as banning the use of excessive force; creation of an independent prosecutor to review cases of police misconduct; revision of the civil service examinations; and the creation of a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee that will maintain a database of officer misconduct.

Davis noted that the goal of the reexamination of the role of the police is to “transform the police into a force for justice. We are not painting our Police Department with the same brush as other departments in other cities. We are not calling for the ‘defunding’ of the police.”

She insisted that the working group would be tasked with reviewing department practices, as what she termed “a second set of eyes,” to help improve policing in Great Barrington.

“I see this as a way to provide community-based services, so that we can take a creative view, and divert people from the criminal justice system,” she said.

“The Town of Great Barrington supports the work of our Police Department, our Town government, and our schools, to make them more diverse, equitable and inclusive and commits to seeking further police and administrative measures in support of deepening our community’s understanding of systemic racism and the deep harm it causes.”

Via a Zoom connection former Selectboard member and educator Alana Chernila stated she supported the board’s statement about the relationship of the police to the community.

“We’re really focusing on our Police Department, and what we need, but we can also take a step back and reimagine what a Police Department can be, and how they can work with the community. It’s about rethinking the role of police,” she said.

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