Q&A: Terry Nelson

Beacon City Council member discusses chief search, police reform

Terry Nelson

Terry Nelson, who represents Ward 1 on the Beacon City Council, spoke with Beacon Editor Jeff Simms on Wednesday (Aug. 26) during a Current Conversation held by Zoom. Below are edited excerpts.

You’re the head of a committee charged with overseeing the search for a new police chief. Are there any updates?
We’ve created surveys, which are still going out. You can find them at the city website, at City Hall and at the Howland Public Library. The results will inform how we conduct our search and what we’re looking for. I would encourage people to tell their friends or neighbors to take part, especially in communities of color. Once we get the data, we can relay that to the search firm [Public Sector Search & Consulting], and then the search begins.

Once you have a handful of finalists, will the public be involved in interviews?
Yes. This is an important time, and we want to get this right. We need to figure out what we can do to make policing or public service better. Hopefully we can find a chief that is forward-thinking and has experience with diverse communities.

The council adopted a resolution containing significant policy changes for the Police Department. Can you give an overview?
We are reviewing how we can do better — because we can all do better — and how we can reach different communities. How can we stop people of color from being afraid of the police? How can we flip that around? I’m not saying we can do it in a day, but we need to figure out how we can take steps toward that happening.

We also have to examine what it’s like for the officers. Mental health check-ins are important and should be more frequent. It’s a high-stress job. There’s also a lot of chatter about our position with the Police Department. We are not anti-police and we are not defunding the police. We don’t hate the police. We want to work with them. We want to help them be better. That’s what this resolution is about.

What feedback have you gotten to the changes?
There were several members of the community who said they were grateful that we passed this resolution. Others, even in public comments at council meetings, accused us of “playing the race card,” which I’m not even going to dignify. I’ve had people call me a Marxist and a Communist in the same letter. I don’t know where the anger comes from. We are not trying to hurt the police. We want the Police Department to work with us and work well with the community. We can all do better in our jobs. I can do better at my job. We’re trying to make the city function in a way that’s a little more harmonious.

I’ve gotten some pretty angry stuff in emails, and I will admit to you, it’s hard to take. It’s hard to read things about yourself, or to look at social media and see someone suggest that we be shot in the head. I would suggest to the rational-thinking people out there who may not agree with me: Choose your words carefully. That is not the kind of behavior we need right now.

Could hiring the new chief help to unify people?
I would hope so. I think the hateful emails people are sending me are a symptom of a larger problem that’s generational — when, for generations, we have not effectively talked about race in a serious manner because one side gets offended and walks away. I’ve had people ask me, “Why are they protesting? Why are they bringing this stuff up again?” But this stuff is my daily life. This stuff is me getting in my car and getting on the highway and being conscious of the speed limit, or having my headlights on, or, am I doing everything right? What if I get stopped? What do I do? It’s a conversation that is long overdue.

There are a lot of people who need to be brave enough to have the conversation where you’re going to hear things that make you uncomfortable. You should be uncomfortable, because I wake up and get in my car and I’m uncomfortable. There are young kids out there who walk around the street and they’re uncomfortable if they see a police officer. That’s not right, and it’s not normal.

I’m not going to see it in my lifetime, and that’s disappointing because when I was a child, I thought that things would be a lot better. But it turns out that it’s a lot worse, and it’s a lot worse when people don’t speak to each other or don’t speak to each other respectfully. If you don’t know something about another person’s race, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Being wrong is not a sin, you know?

Earlier this summer, the council held a forum on policing. Will there be more?
It was productive, and the engagement has to continue. For too long, there has been a community of underserved people of color here.

The council has also had preliminary conversations about municipal broadband.
I hate to say that a good thing has come out of the pandemic, but it has illuminated the fact that there are families in Beacon who don’t have sufficient, or any, internet access. If we’re going to teach our children virtually, that puts a lot of people at a disadvantage, and that is the last thing we need. It’s appalling to me that internet access is so poor. It should be treated as a public utility, like electric or gas, available to everyone, not just the people who can afford it.

Has the council had discussions with police officers about the reform plans?
Yes. How can a civilian talk about reform without asking a police officer? I don’t want people to assume that they’re the bad guys. It’s about dialogue and discussion. You don’t have to agree with each other, but we can ask, “OK, what is this experience like? What do you do when X, Y and Z happens?” Before the former chief left, we were asking those questions. We were asking about protocols. We wanted to find out how the department operates.

Were you surprised when the chief and captain retired in July?
When I heard, I was like, “Are you kidding me?” All I asked him [during a City Council meeting in June] was, “What time of day do you make stops on South Cedar?” Just kidding, but no — half-kidding. It took me by surprise. I wish the former chief and the captain well. Now we get to move forward into the 21st century.

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