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Officer status, review board, defunding: Tough issues discussed

The public did not have to wait until August to hear the town’s top official address the racist words of Lt. Rick Pedrini. Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine raised “the elephant in the room” almost immediately on Tuesday, June 23, during the first of four community conversations about race and reform.
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 Published in a statewide police newsletter in late October 2018, the columns led to the officer's suspension, reinstatement to desk duty and controversy since. The manager called the writings “despicable, racist, a dark mark” on Arlington police.

Noting the “obvious lack of success” of how restorative justice was used to discipline Pedrini, Chapdelaine said he aims to use the matter to focus on reforms.

That could include appealing for state changes in Civil Service and arbitration, which he said provided “severe limitations” on managers, making public employees difficult to discipline or terminate. He called such changes “long overdue.”

Housing, zoning

In addition, such reforms should include policies affecting housing and rules affecting zoning.

“We are not predominantly white by accident,” he said. “Tonight is a first step -- an opening, not closing of a door.”

At 7:18, moderator Jillian Harvey, the town’s first diversity coordinator, and Allentza Michel, a diversity consultant with Powerful Pathways,  turned to questions submitted by the public. 

She made clear that all queries would be addressed, in the three remaining parts of the series and in documents to be posted on the town website. The first part in the series is titled "Calling Out the Issues -- A Time of Reflection and Action."

This is a brief summary of responses to some of the 10 questions asked in the 90-minute effort, attended by an estimated 300 at its height on Zoom, and also shared via Facebook Live and well as viewed via ACMi.

Q: How can zoning be changed to affect housing? 

Chapdelaine: Globally, we to have to look at expanding housing. This is not Arlington-specific. Zoning is too restrictive. I am an advocate for the Housing Choice bill, which would reduce zoning votes to require a majority rather than the current two-thirds.

“Eliminating single-family zoning would be a struggle here,” he said, noting that such responses as, “I want to protect my neighborhood,” signals “dog-whistle language [about racism] .... You may not mean it, but that’s what it is.”

Q: “Systemic racism” is a powerful term, but it’s meaning is vague. As to Arlington, what factors need monitoring? What is the extent of racism here?

Chapdelaine: We need to deconstruct Civil Service and look at how we hire and promote. As to changing collective bargaining and arbitration, we need statewide help.

Roderick MacNeal Jr., assistant superintendent of Arlington Public Schools: We look at discipline data, state test scores, attendance, curriculum. We look at the diversity of students. We do have Metco students, but limited number.

As to Colonial Day, changed about a year ago, he said that voices of Native Americans and Africans were not expressed, so we took steps to broaden the effort. That included eliminated dressing up in Colonial garb.

Q.: Given community concerns, what is Pedrini’s status?

 Police Chief Juliann Flaherty said she has no plans to change his current assignment from administration, overseeing traffic safety and details. 

Chapdelaine said he is “in total agreement with the chief.” He sees no reassignment unless there is dialogue with the community.

Q: Do you favor a citizen review board with an annual report, as proposed for discussion at a future Town Meeting?

Flaherty: Reform is difficult without the community and police working together. She referred to her alternative plan, presented first to the Select Board in March.

She said she is open to discussing civilian review board, but thinks her plan would work better, with 11 to 13 community members.

Chapdelaine agreed, adding that a residents’ advisory committee and a review board were not mutually exclusive. He noted a new effort on a citizen-involved data portal providing police information as well as open data from the BU Metro Bridge program.

Q: As to defunding police, how might that be negotiated?

Flaherty called the term “defund” misguided. “Police are blamed for all issues … We don't say no …. We have to go into all kinds of dangerous situations,” she said. She cited local opiate deaths as an example of a challenge police took on. “We saw too much death,”she said of the effort spurred by former Chief Fred Ryan, one that led to PAARI, a national organization begun in Gloucester.

“You won’t solve this by taking away the police budget,” she said.

Chapdelaine called the Arlington police “a model for the nation.” He cited tough questions that he and the chief discuss: Do police need to have firearms in particular situations? The department has a part-time social worker. Perhaps it needs  more.

“The APD will still respond to calls,” Flaherty added, should its budget be reduced, but it would not be able to offer all it does now -- including the Citizen Police Academy, Operation Success and a police camp for youth.

Q. How can we ensure that candidates from diverse backgrounds get a chance?

MacNeal allowed the difficulty of the issue, noting that 80 percent of teachers are white women. He said the public schools have hired more people of color in recent years --  CFO Michael Mason, the new Gibbs principal and himself.

Chapdelaine said he area is one in which the town needs help, citing work with the NAACP. He pointed to the town program  begun in January with the National League of Cities in January. Before Covid-19 put it on hold, basic training about racism was held for officials and 65 staffers.

Flaherty said that among her goals is to pursue staff diversity.  Were her department no longer in Civil Service, she said, she  could hire a more diverse force.

She said policing has changed drastically over her career. She said she works to treat people alike in community and to increase transparency. She has done initial research into considering body cameras for the force and has appointments with three vendors coming up.

Her department will be launching a blog, offering news and updates. It will include a place for the public to make complaints about officers. She said the department avoids obtaining military gear, and has never used tear gas or Tasers. 

Q: What are the town’s overall personnel  policies regarding racist comments?

Chapdelaine: Racists comments violates town’s discrimination policy. The action taken depends on the circumstances.

Q: Are suspensions related to grades? What are the disparity in discipline rates? Are you collecting data?

MacNeal said these complex issues would be addressed at the June 25 School Committee meeting during a discussion of suspension data, which the schools do collect. The effort has expanded since he came in 2017, he said. “We continue to build a data culture,” he said, adding that he tries “to get a full picture of the student. We like to have listening sessions, including students of color, asking what they face.

Oct. 12, 2019: From fury to reason, 27 address Pedrini issue for 3rd week

This news summary with a viewpoint was published Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

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