This story is meant to be listened to so please use the transcript below as a reference.

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MELISSA BATCHILDER, P.I.O. NB POLICE DEPARTMENT: Okay, we should be good to go. 

BRIAN GOMES, NB COUNCIL MEMBER : Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon, commissioners. Good afternoon to the public. Well, I should say good evening.

If it were a non-COVID night, New Bedford council member Brian Gomes would be addressing residents from a government building in person, to get their input on one of the most talked about topics of the year: police brutality. 

But Gomes found himself on Zoom, with about 80 other participants to talk about the police department’s use-of-force policies. 

They were all on the screen, in a virtual room that looks like a mosaic of faces -- young and old, black and white -- from people in New Bedford and its neighboring cities. 

GOMES: The ground rules set on that everyone will be given three minutes to make your statement will be no questions to the commission.

And then, the forum began. 

[silence]

And no one came forward to speak.

[silence]

 Your radio isn’t broken. This is the silence. On-and-off for over two very awkward minutes. 

GOMES: We don't have anyone waiting? We have no one waiting in the public forum. No one waiting in the room?

And then finally…

GOMES: I see several people up on the screen.

PARTICIPANT: Excuse me. Hello. Is there something specific that you want people to talk about? I don't think people are aware of what comments they're supposed to make since they can’t ask questions. 

Gomes leads a newly formed commission charged with reviewing the use-of-force policies. The 19-person team has members from a number of groups: police unions, the NAACP, and a Black Lives Matter organizer to name a few. 

During this first public meeting, it was clear participants didn’t know what was going on. So, they slowly started taking themselves off mute and talking about...what they wanted to talk about. 

Namely, the frustration over the fact that Gomes wouldn’t disclose what his commission has been doing since it was formed two months ago.  

One participant, who went by Breathe! New Bedford on the call, said the commission lacked transparency and representation from people directly impacted by police.

BREATHE! NB: So here we are, this meeting is being presented and now you're asking the community to come forward and tell us and ask the community to give voice in a space where you have not created an environment that is welcoming for communities to even be involved.

This talking point was repeated throughout the call. Participants telling the commission what it’s doing wrong on police reform and what it needs to do instead. All through these small boxes on a computer screen. 

Talking about a topic so sensitive, which has brought millions of people to protest across the country, and has created racial justice activists in every state in America, is just hard to do virtually. 

And participants on the call began to notice that. In the chat box, a person wrote she wanted to get off the call, feeling the meeting was useless.

But, in all the chaos, including someone who accused Gomes of raising his voice and intimidating a young woman, there were some very strong positive moments. 

When one speaker, Dartmouth resident Bob Bailey, said the department should change how the policies are written, addressing suspects as people instead of objects, participants were nodding their heads pretty much in unison. 

BAILEY: They mention “arrestee” or “the felon” or whatever it is but it’s not really a person. And I wonder if that, in some way, puts the police in a mindset of not really thinking about the humanness of the individual they’re dealing with. 

Another participant suggested the city should provide more funding to the police department in order to better train them for intense situations. And another thought the policies should inform police officers on how to de-escalate a situation in order to avoid using force. 

New Bedford resident, Maria Fortes says, residents just want to be listened to.

FORTES: This is very sensitive, we have to listen to one another. We don't want to repeat what's going on in other communities during this time, we want to make sure that everyone is at the table, especially those who have family members who have been feeling these injustices. Yes, we do have a great community here in New Bedford. But ...there's a lot of issues that have been going on.

The police use-of-force commission will present its recommendations to the mayor in the next couple weeks. Gomes says he will consider having a second public forum before then, which one commissioner suggested would be better organized.

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Nadine Sebai is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public's Radio. She can be reached at nsebai[@]thepublicsradio.org