- Courtesy Of Chris Spencer & Erin Wolcott
- Chris Spencer and Erin Wolcott
In June 2020, Chris Spencer and Erin Wolcott moved from Burlington and Middlebury to their new house in Vergennes. Eager to get to know their neighbors and their new community, they started attending city council meetings, which were being held virtually due to the pandemic.
The couple quickly found themselves absorbed in a municipal drama more contentious than any reality TV show. It involved discussions about racially biased policing, creating a civilian oversight commission of the Vergennes Police Department and reducing the law enforcement budget, which at the time accounted for more than a third of the city's operating expenses.
"I thought it was great," recalled Spencer in a recent interview. "I really commended our city government for tackling this really difficult conversation. Unfortunately, it really snowballed from there and became very polarizing."
Indeed, by late July, the mayor and three city councilors had resigned, and Vergennes' government effectively ground to a halt.
Spencer, 31, a freelance filmmaker who previously worked as a videographer and editor at Vermont PBS, and Wolcott, 34, an assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College, set out to unpack the history of addressing racial bias by police in Vermont's smallest city of 2,600 residents, 96 percent of whom are white.
The result is The Price of Safety, a new 54-minute documentary told almost exclusively in the voices of Vergennes residents and current and former government officials. Much of its debate stems from a 2017 report by University of Vermont professor of economics Stephanie Seguino, and Cornell University visiting associate professor Nancy Brooks, who found that, statewide, police were far more likely to stop, search, ticket and/or arrest Black motorists than white ones. According to their analysis, Vergennes had one of the highest rates of racial disparities in Vermont.
The Price of Safety is Spencer and Wolcott's first feature-length documentary together and is by far Spencer's longest. Wolcott, who'd never worked on a film before, helped compile much of its data and conducted many of its interviews.
In addition to their conversations with current and former government officials, Spencer and Wolcott relied on historical footage of past city council meetings. And, because the pandemic limited where he could film, Spencer flew a drone over the city to capture some spectacular aerial footage. The effect creates a compelling visual metaphor — an overview, if you will, of how Vergennes fits into the landscape of national debates about racial bias and police funding.
Seven Days spoke with Spencer and Wolcott ahead of the film's premiere this Saturday, November 20, at the Vergennes Opera House.
SEVEN DAYS: Despite its contentious subject matter, The Price of Safety presents this issue in a very dispassionate tone. Did being newcomers provide you with emotional distance?
CHRIS SPENCER: It definitely helped. We came in with a fresh perspective. We didn't have the baggage of having lived here for a decade plus, and we didn't have a side, per se. We just saw that there was an issue in our community, and we quickly latched on to it.
The people who live here are very passionate and engaged, and that's what we really love. Unfortunately, sometimes people have a hard time having conversations with others if there's that historical context, and it creates a veil of not being able to think critically about the issues at hand.
SD: The film never mentions the defund-the-police movement by name, even though, essentially, that's what it's all about. Did you deliberately avoid that catchphrase?
ERIN WOLCOTT: We interviewed about a dozen community members and city and state elected officials, and that language didn't come up in any of the interviews. So we didn't intentionally avoid it. It just wasn't how people in Vergennes at the time were talking about what was going on with the police department. But I do think it's interesting how much of what was happening in Vergennes was mirroring national conversations about police budgets.
SD: The film also avoids any reference to national politics or party affiliations. Why?
CS: We intentionally tried to stay as objective as possible for two reasons. One, we want to retain our house and stay friendly with our neighbors. It didn't seem like a constructive conversation to be talking in such a politicized environment about these topics, because we knew that would turn off many people in Vergennes.
Two, we knew from prior conversations and recorded city council meetings that, when these topics come up, there's always a criticism involved, especially with the racial bias component: Is the data correct? Is some external person coming in to demolish the vitality of our community and make us look terrible?
We tried so hard to make sure that everything we represented in the film was bulletproof in terms of criticism. We didn't want to put our own spin on something, because we didn't want people in our community to point to it and say, "Look, there's their hidden agenda!" We want people to watch this film and gain a better understanding of what was going on and, at the end of the film, arrive at their own conclusions.
- Courtesy Of Chris Spencer & Erin Wolcott
- Lawn signs in Vergennes
SD: Police Chief George Merkel, who appears in film footage of public meetings, declined your interview request, and there are no other law enforcement voices in the film. Did you try to interview other police officers?
CS: We considered it for sure, but we wanted this to remain a local conversation. We could have interviewed the Addison County Sheriff [Peter Newton], but there's some baggage between him and the chief of police. And we didn't want to incorporate outside voices that someone could point to and say, "This is just another person they're adding in to say that Vergennes has all these systemic issues." We did include a couple of academics just to provide the broader historical perspective and gently nudge people, as if to say, "This is happening in Vergennes, but by no means is this an anomaly. This is happening elsewhere."
SD: Were there elements of this story that you wish you could have explored further?
CS: We could have delved into how Vergennes is a microcosm of the larger national conversation. I wish we could have had [interviews] with our police chief and with [Mayor] Lynn Donnelly. They clearly were very passionate about their perspectives, and I really wanted to hear their justifications for things they had said in prior city council meetings — and their opinions on where Vergennes should go in terms of policing and public safety.
Again, we're newcomers to this city, and it takes a lot of trust to discuss this contentious issue with us and not believe we have a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other people we reached out to who were just not interested [in being interviewed]. I wish we had had a much more robust conversation and had gotten those other perspectives in there.
SD: Do you have any trepidation about the film's Vergennes premiere?
EW: We're definitely excited about it. I'm personally a little bit nervous. It's been challenging to work on a contentious film in a community that I want to live in and stay in. But I am also really excited to share this with the community. One of the things that Chris and I learned is that it's really important for white Vermonters to speak out and take action and hold ourselves accountable. White people are the vast majority of Vermont and the vast majority of policy makers. We're the ones with the power, and we're the ones who can speak up without fearing for our safety. So I think it's really important to show this film locally, and we hope other white people walk away and feel inspired to use their power to fight for change.
SD: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
CS: The other thing we hope viewers take away from watching this film is that we intentionally leave people feeling uncomfortable. It doesn't button up nicely. It's not like we all came to a consensus in Vergennes and could move on. And we did that because, more often than not, with discussions of race it's easy to say, "Well, we changed this policy. Now we can go on with our lives." Unfortunately, that often just kicks the can down the road. We really want people to take a hard examination of the situation and recognize that systemic racism is 400-plus years old. This is a huge structural thing that we're trying to figure out, and one policy change or reading one book or showing up at one protest isn't enough. You've got to stay engaged.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.