Jessica Park Wright: Keeping watch over the watchmen

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There's a striking mural painted on the blast wall in front of the National Directorate of Security in Kabul, just two piercing eyes staring at passersby next to the phrases, in Dari, "Corruption is not hidden from God and the people's gaze" and "I see you."

It brings to mind the Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, which roughly translates to "Who watches the watchmen" — a perennial question. In Afghanistan's climate of corruption, the watching is a people's initiative. In the United States, where injustice is systemic but more insidious, we see a people's movement on the rise.

I have called Afghanistan home, as well as New York City, and recently, home has been South Egremont in Berkshire County. From this vantage I have watched an inept president mismanage a national health crisis that has led, in many ways, to the growth of a worldwide human rights movement. From a place of righteous anger and frustration, people are asking questions about persistent racial, economic and social inequality in America.

With the rise of white nationalist hate groups and the unveiling of privilege weaponized (as in the Amy Cooper Central Park incident), people are asking why we have turned a blind eye to blatant racism for so long. Meanwhile, we are bearing witness to police brutality in Minneapolis; in Louisville, Ky.; in Glynn County, Ga.; and in Aurora, Colo. We say the names of the victims as a rallying cry and as a reminder that their lives matter, and that black lives matter. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain. There are so many more. Indeed, even in our peaceful Berkshire Arcadia, the events of recent months compel us to reframe the way we think about so many things, from entrenched narratives of racism to the laws that solidify injustice and perpetuate hate.

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In an effort to bring the discussion home and with the goal of effecting tangible change in this community, I, along with a small but passionate group of reform-minded friends, presented proposals at the Great Barrington and Egremont annual meetings in June to reduce the towns' police budgets, reallocate funds to community organizations and open a discussion about alternative policing models.

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Our reasoning was simple: The police budgets in both towns far exceed the budgets of most other sectors (over $1.7 million allocated in Great Barrington or 67 percent of the public safety budget, and over $430,000 allocated in Egremont or nearly 10 times the human services budget). Crime is consistently low in the area (Great Barrington has 60 percent less crime than the national average and Egremont has no crime to speak of). Funds are better allocated to community health programs, youth projects and other local initiatives than to over-weaponized and over-staffed police departments.

We also argued that Great Barrington and Egremont are well positioned to be leaders in public safety reform in a nation struggling to come to terms with entrenched systems that do not serve the people they should protect. What better place than these peaceful towns to foster healthier attitudes between law enforcement and citizens? And what's more, we know that alternative models work. The town of New Marlborough, for example, has implemented a "proactive community-oriented approach to public service," employing only a police chief, one full-time officer and a few part-time officers. No one will argue that the five villages are unpleasant or unsafe places to live.

Our conservative proposal to reduce the Great Barrington police budget of approximately $1.7 million by $200,000 failed by a vote of 132 to 74, and our proposal to hold the Egremont police budget at $409,732 (instead of increasing it by a proposed $27,000) failed to get a majority of voters behind it. But our message did not fall entirely on deaf ears. Many town residents have since voiced their support for our initiative, and a detailed plan for police reform was presented at a July 1 Great Barrington Select Board meeting. It seems there is a growing consensus against the American approach to law enforcement, one in which the police are viscerally feared and avoided instead of being welcomed as allies and protectors.

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At the very least we hope our efforts have opened a discussion among town residents about the consequential issues at stake right now, and emboldened those who will fight for better systems, build stronger institutions and promote new ways of thinking.

Radical social change happens incrementally. It is our duty as citizens to keep watch.

Jessica Park Wright is a litigation associate at DLA Piper in New York City. Prior to joining the firm, she was an international associate at RLS Legal in Kabul and served as a Legal Advisor in the Office of the President of Afghanistan.


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