Courts & Corrections

Burlington chief: Police use of force culture must change

Brandon del Pozo
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
BURLINGTON – Officials advocated for reduced use of force and community-based policing on a panel as part of the Mayor’s Innovation Project summer meeting on Friday.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said that policing on a day-to-day basis has the power to “destroy all of us in an instant.”

Del Pozo said that when he looks at Church Street, the first thing he sees is van racing down the pedestrian mall. He is always in the mindset of being prepared to deal with the worst possible situation.

He said this mentality can make police officers difficult to talk to.

Del Pozo suggested to mayors in the room to work on establishing a good relationship with their police chief, and developing knowledge of the department’s work.

“You can’t wait for that 2 a.m. phone call to say to your police chief ‘what happened, what are we going to do about this,” he said.

The Burlington chief offered advice for improved policing, including universal body camera use, prohibiting shooting at cars except for extreme circumstances, and hiring civilians as research analysts.

He also suggested reducing the use of traffic stops by improving road safety through reengineering, slowing speed limits, self driving cars and other tactics.

Del Pozo said car stops create a poor public perception of police, result in use of force interactions and reduce trust.

“Our car stops are way down in Burlington, as a result of a lot of different things we’re doing, and our accidents are the same,” he said, referring to a study that has yet to be vetted by the police commission.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, shared his organization’s efforts to reduce use of force through training.

“We never blame the officer per se, we say they did what they did because of the training that they received,” Wexler said, adding that police training has changed little in the past 25 years.

The forum was created by a group of 10 chiefs in 1976 to research best practices and policies for police departments in large cities.

Wexler commended efforts by the Washington Post to track police use of force, which is not done by the federal government.

He pointed out opportunities for improvement: the shootings that involved those with mental illness, unarmed subjects, subjects armed with a knife and subjects using a vehicle.

The Post reported that 963 people had been shot and killed by police in the U.S. in 2016. The newspaper says 995 people were shot by police in 2015. Vermont had two deadly shootings in 2016.

Out of the nearly 1,000 people shot, approximately 600 of those subjects were armed with a gun, and would be difficult to prevent, Wexler said. The remaining number is what his organization is targeting to reduce through training, policy and tactics.

He told the group of city officials that a New York Police Department regulation which prohibited the shooting of cars, cut death rates in half in just two years.

“We want officers to think when they’re in a certain situation: ‘how can everyone go home safely?’” Wexler said.

Wexler commended Burlington for being one of several cities to undergo integrated, communications, assessment and tactics training – a program which prepares officers to handle potential use of force situations.

Del Pozo pointed out that 17 unarmed black Americans were killed in 2016.

“You didn’t hear in the Washington Post that there were 50 percent fewer killings of unarmed black Americans last year,” he said, referring to a decline between 2015 and 2016.

The Burlington chief said that there was a 1 in a 2 million chance of a black American having a fatal encounter with police in 2016.

“This doesn’t offer solace, right, because we look at Jordan Edwards, that young man who was killed a car driving away from a party,” del Pozo said. “We don’t say ‘it’s OK because he’s 1 in a million’, we say ‘those cops shouldn’t have been shooting at that car.’”

He said traditional policies and practices reflect a culture where police officers felt the need to use force in many situations. Del Pozo said there is a clear need for systemic change in policing.

Paula Hicks-Hudson, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, said her city operates under the mentality that keeping the community safe has to be a group effort.

When Toledo officers take part in police academy training, the department brings in members of the Muslim, Syrian refugee and Latino communities to help develop cultural understanding, she said.

“I believe, as the chief does, that you cannot have a safe neighborhood, or a safe community if the police are not fully a part of that community,” Hicks-Hudson said.

She said developing trust between citizens and officers is an important step to effective policing. Toledo officers take part in programs with schoolchildren, have a “Candy with the Cops” program where police give candy to reward good behavior by kids and develop a connection.

The department also has a program called STOP, where officers go door-to-door in a neighborhood after an arrest at a house, and ask neighbors what other problems there might be in the neighborhood.

Hicks-Hudson also said that the police department has made effective use of neighborhood block watches. Police provide them with crime information and resources, and the watches relay info to the department about problems such as the opioid epidemic.

“We have to have opportunities of communication,” she said, stressing the need to connect with officers at a time when there is no problem.

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  • Gary Murdock

    Please confine your efforts to your city. You can implement this policy when your not cleaning up after the stabbings and informing your fed up business community that they have to live with the results of your cities policies. Believe it or not, there’s a great big “rest of the state” that wants nothing to do with Burlington and it’s progressive ideology. By the way…if I’m ever touched by one of your self driving cars I will sue everyone connected to it into oblivion…that’s a promise.

  • tedcohen

    Burlington’s top cop as usual is in love with the sound of his own voice, albeit an inconsistent one.

    He decries police brutality in one breath and in the next says cops don’t get credit for shooting fewer blacks.

    You can’t get credit for shooting fewer people unless you get credit for shooting people.

    Weird.

    He says cops in Vermont’s largest city are stopping fewer cars but that accident rates aren’t up.

    Yet traffic stops are not just for nabbing errant drivers. They often produce more intel than they do prevent car crashes.

    Weird.

    Burlington, Vermont has a growing incidence of sidewalk vagrancy and violence, yet its police chief is more intent on pumping up his resume as a sociologist.

    Burlington needs a cop as its chief, not a college professor. But the chief’s No. 1 constituent is a mayor who prefers welfare over public safety.

    • JohnGreenberg

      “You can’t get credit for shooting fewer people unless you get credit for shooting people.”

      Your statement makes no sense. The police HAVE been blamed for shooting people. Del Pozo is suggesting that they should get credit for not doing so.

      “Yet traffic stops are not just for nabbing errant drivers. They often produce more intel than they do prevent car crashes.” Really? I’m not a lawyer, but a traffic stop to produce “intel” sounds like a pretty blatant violation of the 4th Amendment to me. It certainly constitutes dubious policing policy.

  • Adrienne Raymond

    I applaud the chief’s ideas. I don’t want to live in a society that is policed with the assumption that everyone is a possible criminal and only our strict obedience to any and all of the ever-growing list of restrictions will keep us “safe”. The simple regulation not to shoot at cars is great. Add to that not allowing car chases for anything but the most severe situations is helpful, too. We don’t need to live in, what in some places is becoming, a “police state”.