Protesters call for Brunswick police officers to take a knee with them to show that black lives matter near the Brunswick police station last week. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick town officials have received dozens of emails calling for the council to defund the Brunswick Police Department as anger over issues of police brutality and racism across the country. 

The council is expected to iron out the municipal budget on Thursday, and councilor Dan Ankeles has asked town staff to be prepared to answer questions related to the police budget.

The conversation around the role of Brunswick’s police department likely will be too much to tackle during a budget workshop, but Ankeles and other councilors said Wednesday that they welcome the discussion. 

Though he is uncomfortable with terms like “defund” or “abolish,” there are some aspects of police work, such as wellness checks and interaction with the homeless population or those fighting substance use disorder, that Ankeles said are better served by health care and mental health professionals. 

The “repeal and replace” approach is probably more fitting for cities with larger, “more egregious” examples of misconduct, but there is opportunity for “reimagining what the role is for law enforcement in Brunswick,” he said. 

A “longer, slower, less exciting, more holistic way of looking at it is probably going to be the way to go,” he added, but it is “a useful time for us to start the conversation.” 

Protests across the country, including several in Brunswick, have sprouted from outrage over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minnesota last month. Former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, despite Floyd’s cries that he could not breathe. The video of Floyd’s death, coupled with heightened tensions over the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, sparked protests calling for an end to police brutality and racism, and in some cases, for cutting funding to or even abolishing the police. 

In Brunswick, the police department budget is about $4.4 million of the total $27 million municipal budget. Many of those emailing are asking that funds be moved to the general assistance and health services budgets.

According to councilors though, much of that money is set by the state, not the town, and the police budget is already stretched thin. 

Councilor Jim Mason, a criminal defense attorney, said that instead of defunding the police, there could be opportunities for restructuring. 

“More and more, my job as a criminal defense attorney is doing social work,” Mason said, and he is seeing police officers in the same boat. “Police officers and I are not any good at it and we don’t have the training for it. We picked jobs that are not social work jobs,” he said. 

Instead of “defunding the police,” he said, perhaps some of the money could be directed toward “crime prevention” like building adequate and affordable housing, funding drug counseling services and defusing volatile situations instead of “law enforcement.” 

“As a criminal defense attorney, I do not want to get rid of the police department,” he said. “We are not going to ‘social service’ our way from all crime, but that doesn’t mean the way we’re doing it is the right way.” 

This would involve a “massive change of the way we have gone about doing law enforcement,” and would necessitate a larger discussion than can be accomplished in a budget workshop, but “we can talk and we can bring people to the table to talk,” he said, calling it the council’s “responsibility” to do so. 

Brunswick Police Cmdr. Mark Waltz agreed that there needs to be more funding for social work and mental health services in town, but “the way to do that is not to cut our budget,” he said. 

Police and mental health professionals can and should work together, but the department has dealt with some mental health crises that would not be safe for a social worker to go into alone, he said. 

The calls to defund the police have been vague, he said, and have not specified what they want to see cut, only where they want to see the money go.

Waltz wants it there, too. 

“We want to see (more money for services) but we’re running pretty lean as it is,” he said. Because so many resources have already been cut, police end up being the “mental health care provider of last resort,” and cutting their budget means even fewer resources in town, he said, unless officials choose to fund Sweetser or a town-run mental health program. 

When fully staffed, the police department has 36 officers. Right now, between vacant positions (which the council decided not to fill this year) and people in training, they only have 28. 

In previous years, when the department was underfunded, people were upset there weren’t enough officers downtown or on the streets, Kathy Wilson said.

She said there should be more general assistance funding from the state, but added that defunding police won’t help with that. 

Instead, she supports more training, especially around issues like bias, race and de-escalation. 

Councilor Steve Walke said he is not only against reducing funding for the department, but is also in favor of requiring body cameras for officers, which if anything, would boost their budget.

Walker is “cautiously optimistic” that Scott Stewart, Brunswick’s incoming police chief, will help guide the department in proper procedures and appropriate training, despite being the only dissenting council vote for his appointment. Walker said he was disappointed there was not more community involvement in the selection process, which is why he voted “no.” 

 “I don’t see our department as needing serious restructuring,” he said Wednesday, but added that he would like to see a citizens advisory board that features minorities, people impacted by domestic violence and more to represent an accurate cross-section of the community. 

“There’s a lot of room for more citizen input and citizen oversight,” Walker said, “but I’m not there for defunding the police.” 

Ankeles, Wilson, and Mason all voiced disapproval over the Brunswick Police Department accepting militarized equipment like the armored vehicle or laser night scopes for rifles. 

“If we militarize our police force, then what we get is a military response,” Mason said. 

Ankeles agreed and called it a “value choice.”

Such equipment “poisons the relationship between law enforcement and the residents,” he said, and does more harm than good for peaceful interactions during demonstrations like the recent protests. 

“We don’t need a military police,” Wilson said, “we need a compassionate, understanding and trained police force.” 

The issues at hand will need to be part of a larger conversation with community input, Ankeles said, and will take a lot of time. 

“We can’t have it (fixed) in a week,” he said. “Even if nothing major is decided (right away), it doesn’t mean we’re stonewalling or not interested in making things better. We want to do it the right way and have an actual Brunswick-specific policy that works for our town.”

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