BURLINGTON — Police Chief Brandon del Pozo has called for a shift in police training away from firearm use in situations where distressed individuals are holding knives.
In a New York Times op-ed published Thursday, del Pozo wrote that police training around the country teaches officers to lead with a gun in those situations.
“We tell officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and that they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return,” del Pozo wrote. “But doing so forecloses all of the better ways to communicate with a person in crisis. There are alternatives.”
Police academies should prioritize de-escalation training in which officers try to engage knife-wielding individuals without yelling at or threatening them, he wrote.
“Police academies should ingrain a wide range of skills, drills and responses in trainees before they ever handle a firearm,” del Pozo said. “Training should start by sending officers into scenarios where they have to solve problems without recourse to lethal force.”
The op-ed comes three years after a Burlington officer shot and killed resident Phil Grennon, who was mentally ill and armed with a knife.
Del Pozo told VTDigger in an interview that officers’ first instinct is to pull their guns and issue orders, including in that instance.
“Once they have some calm, they are able to start negotiating,” he said. “It occurred to me we want that second instinct to be the one that dominates.”
In the op-ed, del Pozo wrote that there were “few things … more harrowing than watching video of an officer confront a person in emotional crisis armed with a knife or other similar object.”
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These individuals become more distressed when yelled at by an officer, del Pozo wrote, and often advance with a desire to be shot before getting shot.
“Everyone suffers when this happens: the person in crisis who gets shot and may well die; the officer who will experience lifelong trauma and doubt, and his or her family and loved ones; and a community that feels it failed to help a person in need,” he wrote.
The op-ed also referenced a suggestion from Councilor Perri Freeman, P-Central District, that the city explore disarming officers. Del Pozo wrote that in America, this idea was a “nonstarter.”
“Police officers being rendered helpless to respond to mass shootings and other gun violence puts a community in danger,” he wrote. “But if the police profession doesn’t want politicians broaching these ideas, we owe the public a commitment to doing everything we can to respect the sanctity of life. We should fundamentally change the way police officers view their guns.”
Freeman said at a May 14 council meeting that disarming officers could be an aspect to “dismantle sort of a culture of violence and militarization we’ve had for a long time.” Vermont is one of the states with the lowest levels of violent crime, she said.
The department is currently under scrutiny as it faces two federal lawsuits filed by African American men alleging police brutality after officers shoved and tackled them in 2018. A special committee is currently reviewing the department’s policies.
Del Pozo told VTDigger that officers should have firearms to protect themselves but not use firearms as a crutch.
“Have it to protect yourself, but know the way you are going to try to solve the situation of the person in crisis is going to be through better engagement,” he said. “The gun is an insurance policy.”
Del Pozo said the Vermont Police Academy could modify its curriculum to emphasize firearms as insurance and safety and not as a means of persuasion in these situations.
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