I have serious concerns about how Councilor Feltner has used her position of power as the chair of the Committee on Public Safety and it is one of the strong reasons I will not be voting for her for District B Councilor. I will be voting for Tiffany York for District B Councilor, and urge fellow neighbors in District B to join me because this is a critical time to have Councilors with competency in what justice, equity, diversity and inclusion means and how to actually create it on the next Town Council.
As a light-skinned person of mixed African and European heritage who presents as white to most people, I benefit from an enormous amount of skin privilege and see it as my responsibility to speak up as I am able to when I see and experience racism, and to work to make our community safer for all residents. And it is hard. While I don’t experience most skin discrimination, I have ancestrally inherited fears of targeting and reprisals when being brave enough to speak up. I have written many versions of this letter and lost many hours of sleep over the dynamics at play here.
The elevation in recent years to national awareness of the prevalence of police killings of Black people in the United States has sparked a closer examination of police departments across the country, and calls for accountability. Contrary to the dominant “cops and robbers” narrative that posits police as the “good guys” catching the “bad guys,” public understanding has become more complex: systemic racism is operating in police departments across this country, and steps need to be taken to address it. Over the years, a wide array of problems have been dropped on the doorstep of police departments to handle. Police are not always the best people to handle all public safety problems, and this town deserves an honest review of what services are provided under public safety, and which of those services are best provided by law enforcement officers and which are not. Regrettably, that is not what Watertown received from the Committee on Public Safety this year.
The Town Council Committee on Public Safety supposedly took up the task to “review current operations and services provided by the Watertown Police Department.” The Committee on Public Safety is chaired by Councilor Lisa Feltner and has members Councilors Piccirilli and Kounelis. However, throughout the last year the Committee has not fulfilled its responsibility to be open, transparent, and responsive to the Watertown community it represents. Rather, from my perspective, it has instead attempted to forestall discussions about data gathered by community groups, dismissed community concerns about institutional racism in the Watertown Police Department, and managed its public meetings in ways that have continually given the floor to the leadership of the WPD at the expense of Watertown community members.
This lack of transparency and responsiveness began with the Committee on Public Safety’s refusal to schedule its mandated public meetings at all. On July 14, 2020, Councilor Piccirilli made a motion to refer discussion of the Watertown Police Department to the Committee on Public Safety. It took almost eight months from that date before Councilor Lisa Feltner brought the committee together for a meeting.
When the Committee on Public Safety did finally fulfill its mandate to meet, community members felt shut out of the process and unheard. Prior to the March 12th meeting, Councilor Feltner corresponded with several community groups in Watertown, and promised that members would be given time at the meeting to present data and findings about the WPD’s disproportionate stops and arrests of Black people in Watertown. Councilor Feltner requested that community groups prepare slides and text in advance of the March 12th meeting, and that they submit those presentations to her. However, when the Committee meeting convened, Councilor Feltner instead gave the floor to Police Chief Lawn to present for almost 40 minutes. Police Chief Lawn’s extended remarks can be seen on the archived public video of the meeting here: http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/41?channel=3 (8:23 to 47:57)
Allowing the Chief to speak first and longest is a structural way of controlling the narrative, and it does not facilitate the kind of transparency, accountability and honest review Watertown residents deserve. If it had happened only once, that would be one thing, but the dynamic was repeated at subsequent committee meetings. While I can respect and appreciate a committee wanting to hear from a department head about their department’s operations and services, when there are concerns, there needs to be room for these concerns to be heard and taken seriously.
Not only did Councilor Feltner retract her invitation to community groups to present at the March 12th meeting, and instead give that opportunity solely to the Chief of Police, but during the meeting both Chief Lawn and the Committee members continued to dismiss and shut out community members’ voices and concerns. Since they had not been allowed to present their data and slides during the formal meeting, community members attempted to share that information during the public comment period. They provided their data showing the racial disparity in Watertown arrest rates: in 2019, Black folks were arrested by WPD at a rate 5-6 times the proportion of Black people living in this town. Specifically, Black people make up 2.0% of the Watertown population, but in 2019, 12.8% of residents arrested by WPD were Black. This is a clear reason to review how racial bias is operating in WPD, but rather than take this concern seriously, Chief Lawn dismissed the data analysis, and loudly made comments such as “which of these people would you have me not arrest?” Such behavior was experienced as intimidation and silencing by numerous community members. I am surprised that members of the Committee on Public Safety have not more visibly asked the Chief to be accountable for that and wonder if they have done so privately or not.
At the March 12 committee meeting, Chief Lawn also tried to lift up examples of individual acts of kindness and generosity of individual police officers towards individual Black people as evidence that racism doesn’t exist in the WPD. (These comments begin at 42:00 in the video recording: http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/41?channel=3) Examples of interpersonal kindness and generosity between police officers and Black people do not automatically negate the presence of institutionalized racism. In fact, it would be impossible for racism not to exist within the Watertown Police Department, because racism is endemic throughout the United States, and is operating within every town department.
Most white people in the United States don’t grow up with a good understanding of how racism operates because while they may unknowingly participate in it, they aren’t targeted by it daily.
There is no shame in not knowing what you don’t know. But once it is pointed out to you, you do
have a responsibility to learn and do better. And when residents present reason for concern about racial bias within a department that regularly goes into the community with guns, residents have every right to ask for accountability and oversight.
However, rather than listening to those concerns, this dismissal of community members attempting to ask questions about policing in Watertown continued throughout the subsequent meetings of the Committee on Public Safety. At the October 19th meeting, Councilor Feltner again gave a long period of time to the Chief of Police to talk, with little time for public comment. (The recorded public video of the meeting is here: http://vodwcatv.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/1275?channel=3 The Committee gives Chief Lawn the floor from 4:11 to 45:35.) In my view, the dynamics of the four Committee meetings this year have displayed, for anyone with the awareness to notice, how racism is operating in the WPD, in the Committee on Public Safety, and in the wider Council.
I don’t think Councilor Feltner can hold the WPD accountable for how racism is operating within the department. She has not communicated awareness of even her own white privilege. In contrast to Lisa Feltner, who seemed to attribute the safety she feels on the streets of Watertown to the services provided by the Watertown Police Department, numerous Black, Indigenous and People of Color feel less safe in the presence of police officers. Some people experience increased felt safety in the presence of police officers and some people experience decreased felt safety in the presence of police officers, and this can often occur along racial lines. It broke my heart when s peaking with my Black sister to hear her tell me that one of the reasons my 17-year-old mixed race nephew has been so slow with getting his driver’s license is because last year while driving with his dad, a police officer pulled behind him for a short while. My nephew is well aware of what can happen when driving while Black (you can be shot and killed by a police officer in a routine traffic stop), and this incident shook him up so much that he didn’t drive for months after that. Our children should not have to be scared to drive because they don’t want to be pulled over and killed by the police. If you are saying that would never happen in Watertown, you are missing the point I am trying to get across here of how police officers increase the feeling of felt safety for some people and decrease it for others, and this often corresponds with racial lines. It is one of the reasons why I am a strong proponent of removing public safety services from law enforcement that are not law enforcement issues (i.e. much of mental health crisis response) and do not have to be handled by law enforcement officers. I don’t want more community policing. I want my Black and Brown relatives and friends to be free from the intimidation that is present whenever a law enforcement officer with a gun is present and can use that gun in a racially biased way. Racism is a safety issue: it affects mental health and physical health daily for those who are targeted by it. I call upon the Councilors of Watertown to include that part of safety in how this town provides public safety. To ignore that need is perpetuating racism by continually centering certain needs and ignoring others.
I believe it is Councilors’ responsibility to take steps to address racism in town departments. In my opinion, for Councilors of this town to state so much support for police officers without responding to the concerns of Black, Indigenous and People of Color residents is simply racist. This is one of the ways racism looks today: consistently centering the comfort, needs and safety of some people while consistently ignoring others. Racism is behavior too, not just words.
If Councilors are not upholding the public trust, what recourse is there? Is there any option other than the ballot box? I want Councilor Feltner to be accountable for the impact of how she has mismanaged the Committee on Public Safety. I would like a robust exploration of what services are needed for public safety and which of those services should be provided by law enforcement and which services should not be provided by law enforcement. In addition to concern about officers with bias going into more situations than they need to with guns, and what could happen as a result of that, the presence of police officers just detracts from the experience of felt safety for some residents.
I urge people in this town who can see reason to stop being so ideological about equating police with being the “good guys” that you can’t actually hear the cries for equity of your Black and Brown neighbors. The residents of this town deserve better and it is why I am voting for Tiffany York for District B Councilor. Among other important skills and experience, she has the knowledge and skills not only to recognize racism operating in town departments, but also the courage and perseverance to find ways to address it systemically. Please, can people stop being so defensive, and get serious about making this town a more equitable place to live for all of its residents.
The constant pushback and the silencing of feedback when people dare to speak up about the pain of racism is completely exhausting, and given my skin privilege, I am rarely targeted directly. So I can empathize with how much more exhausting it is for my darker skinned relatives and friends. It is critical that we have safe mechanisms for receiving feedback, and that is why we need to pass the proposed charter changes and have a Human Rights Commission established in Watertown. Thank you to everyone who worked for this important and historic step. Now it is time for voters to see it through to the finish line. For any white residents of Watertown who want more concrete examples of how racism operates in town departments — vote for the Human Rights Commission so we can have safe mechanisms for receiving this feedback.
This election provides important opportunities to put values into action. Don’t be silent. Vote yes for the charter changes, and yes for Councilors who will work for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion rather than just give lip service to it.
(NOTE: The deadline to submit endorsement or election letters was Oct. 28.)