Watertown residents are demanding that local police be more accountable and transparent after public record requests revealed that Black residents are arrested at a rate five to six times higher than white residents.

Nearly 200 people attended a contentious virtual meeting of the Town Council’s Public Safety Committee late last month, when members of the Watertown Citizens for Black Lives group presented data and proposed several anti-racism initiatives they would like to see implemented within the department.

“I think it’s important as a Black person to focus in on potential disparities,” said resident Felicia Sullivan, a leader of the Watertown Citizens for Black Lives group and a former prosecutor in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office. Sullivan acknowledged the hard work police officers do but added, “We need to get to the bottom of [the arrest disparities]. It’s not an attack.”

Communities across Massachusetts are paying closer attention to local police departments and their policies following the death of George Floyd last May. The debate raging in Watertown is a microcosm of what is taking place in communities across the country. And as some residents and officials scrutinize their local police, it is having a polarizing effect.

Police records from the last three years obtained by Watertown Citizens for Black Lives group through public record requests reveal that while Black people make up 2% of Watertown’s population, nearly 13% of people arrested by police were Black in 2019. That year, 84% of residents arrested were white, while the city's population is about 90% white.

“Are we arresting Black people at a higher rate, you know, percentage of population than white people? The answer is, yes,” Town Councilman Vincent Piccirilli said in an interview with GBH News. “And the question is, why? At this point, we don’t know why.”

Data from the same public records request show that in 2019, the Watertown Police Department issued 859 citations to Black people, while there were only 712 black residents living in the town. Watertown Citizens for Black Lives group said it worries that the town could gain a reputation for police stops targeting people of color.

The police department and its supporters didn’t directly dispute the data at last month's meeting. But they pushed back on any insinuation that the police are driven by racism.

Kerilyn Amedio, a Watertown resident and detective with the Watertown Police Department, was among many speakers who defended police operations.

“The people we deal with are more than arrest numbers and statistics,” Amedio said.We want the conversation to continue, but we refuse to be called uneducated white supremacists or say that we come from bad families.”

Amedio said officers are willing to have open, honest dialog, but not at the expense of their character.

John Bartolomucci, president of the Watertown Police Union, which represents more than 50 officers, told the hearing that the police department receives 40 hours of in-service training each year, which includes a mental health component.

“We are not blind to the fact that there are problems nationally in police. We're not blind to that,” Bartolomucci said, adding that the department is open to a conversation on how to fix things.

Watertown Police Chief Michael Lawn, who was at the meeting, mostly listened and made some closing comments. “I took a lot of notes, and there's a lot to unpack here,” he said. “ But I’m committed to do that work.” Lawn agreed to look closer at the proposals being made and look for better ways to move forward once the 2020 police reform legislation takes effect.

The police chief’s brother, State Rep. John Lawn, a Democrat who represents the 10th Middlesex District, called for unity.

“Our police are being defensive,” Lawn said. “There’s no doubt they feel under attack, as well. We need to work together.”

Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, president of the advocacy group Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment, said her group formed an alliance with other organizations like Uplift Watertown to seek more accountability for the Watertown police and to open more lines of communication between the department and the community.

At the community meeting, these advocacy groups said they would like to see Watertown leaders launch four initiatives: addressing the disproportionate arrest and citation data, providinh the public with more Watertown Police Department data related to race, reviewing the department’s use of force policy and how it aligns with the Massachusetts police reform legislation enacted last year, and making documents related to internal affairs investigations available to the public.

Several residents also said Watertown shouldn’t approach the issue of police reform as one where you have to take sides: Residents can support both police offers and anti-racist policies and training.

"Every police department needs ongoing training,” said Jennifer Wolfrum, a new Watertown resident and retired educator, "especially around issues of race and racism — particularly when you look at the racial and ethnic composition of our police departments."

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of a citizens group in town. It’s the Watertown Citizens for Black Lives, not the Watertown Black Lives Matter group.