Black Lives Matter protest

Protestors kneel and lay on street in the middle of the Cache Street and Broadway intersection during a demonstration in June calling for an end to police brutality. More than 700 people gathered on the Town Square to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed into George Floyd’s neck during a May 25 arrest that led to Floyd’s death, sparking outrage which led to nationwide protests.

A law enforcement committee made up of government officials, nonprofit leaders and residents told county commissioners on Monday that Teton County should support a continued effort to look at interactions between police, human services and people in crisis.

The committee was formed last summer to identify issues and develop a plan to address them. The idea for the panel arose over the summer after commissioners heard public comment from residents who advocated taking money from law enforcement budgets and allocating it to human services — advocacy efforts often labeled as “defunding the police.”

“We all feel strongly the work should continue,” committee member Babbs Weissman told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners.

After meeting four times, with a few in-between subcommittee meetings, the task force put together a five-page report with an outline of suggestions and gave it to commissioners before Monday’s meeting.

In it, the committee suggests continued work happening in phases. In phase one, a project management team would further refine the process, deciding who’s involved, how information is gathered, who gathers it, what questions need to be answered and how to educate the community. Phase two would focus on information gathering. The final phase would feature deliberations among community members, law enforcement and social services to come up with policy proposals.

The decision to fund and form the committee came after a sustained campaign organized by the activist group Act Now JH, which was created in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis last Memorial Day. Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who faces charges in the incident.

Following Floyd’s killing last year, Act Now JH attended county meetings throughout the end of June, lobbying commissioners to defund law enforcement’s patrol budgets and divert those funds to social services. After receiving several applications from members of the public and conducting interviews, county commissioners voted to commit $14,000 to form the law enforcement committee and initially appointed five people.

The committee added two new members to diversify itself — something they stress is imperative going forward.

“We all feel it is important that the project lead group is filled with people who are invested in this project and are passionate,” committee member Cinthya Benavides told commissioners. “Diversity is important to me as well.”

They see the continued work lasting six months, with six to 10 people on the team and a facilitator with expertise in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Commissioners Mark Newcomb, Luther Propst and Greg Epstein thanked the committee members for their work.

“Kudos to your success for bringing together a recommendation, your good faith efforts and your investment in the community,” Propst said. “I support the recommendations. I think they are on target.”

What comes next is unclear, but Teton County Administrator Alyssa Watkins said it’s important to identify who or which agency is going to take the lead.

Depending on how involved the next phases of the project are, committee members estimated that it could cost anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000.

But some are excited about where the effort is headed and want to continue to be involved.

“I am wondering how those of us who have been a part can stay involved and how we can help facilitate conversations between different social services and how to lend a hand,” Weissman said. “It could end here if we aren’t careful. It’s very important work.”

While everyone agreed the project should move forward, some committee members disagreed about whether resident members should be paid for their time spent on the task force. Some argued that compensation would remove barriers and allow for a more diverse team.

Commission Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker said the board looks forward to continuing the work.

“Thank you everyone for your courage and candor,” she said. “It is another reminder of why our community is a great place to serve. People are engaged and care.”

Contact Emily Mieure at 732-7066 or courts@jhnewsandguide.com.

Emily Mieure covers criminal justice and emergency news. She also leads the News&Guide’s investigative efforts. She has reported for WDRB TV in Louisville, Ky., WFIE TV in Evansville, Ind., and WEIU TV in Charleston, Ill.

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