The Burlington Police Department’s 2019 use of force report showed a sharp decline in use-of-force incidents since 2012. Eileen Maddocks said that was part of the reason she traveled from Burlington to Montpelier Wednesday night to meet and listen to Chief Brandon del Pozo.
“He had an op-ed column in the New York Times two weeks ago about police and guns, and I was very taken with it,” Maddocks said. “There was so much common sense in it.”
Suellen Howley, who also drove south from Burlington to listen to the chief, said he’s done many positive things for the city. “Particularly in the area of drugs, particularly in the area of working with a mentally ill population, and in the training of his officers to use less force,” she said.
Chief del Pozo’s Wednesday night presentation came on the heels of Tuesday night’s Vermont State Police officer-involved shooting in Bristol. The chief himself believes the Burlington Police have a good track record of looking after and protecting people in need, besides enforcing the law. “Sometimes we do have to use force, but I think in the vast majority of times, it’s used skillfully and judiciously,” he said. “Hopefully the recent report brought that to light.”
One man from North Montpelier who attended the presentation for the Vermont Humanities Council at Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library had two deadly officer-involved shootings on his mind. Erik Esselstyn said he had been thinking of the shootings in Montpelier of bank robbery suspect Nathan Giffin in early 2018 and of Mark Johnson this summer. Both shootings were ruled justified.
“The elephant (in the room) for me is a new level of unease within the community and my relationship with the police,” Esselstyn said.
Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos was also in the audience. He told everyone in the room that after never experiencing a deadly use-of-force incident in its entire history until January 2018, the department had two such incidents in barely a year and a half with the Giffin and Johnson shootings. Chief Facos also told Esselstyn some of his fear likely came from the Montpelier P.D.’s need to essentially remain silent about each incident while Vermont State Police and prosecutors looked into them.
“Some of it’s normal, because we basically have a gag order on us, on the police, while all the other conversations and the misinformation goes out there,” he said.
VSP has been tracking officer-involved shootings in Vermont since 1977. There have never been many of them, though there have been more of them in recent years.
“I think it’s too early to put a definitive approach or answer on the reason why,” Chief del Pozo said. “We’ve been very fortunate to not have had an officer-involved shooting in Burlington in several years, but policing is unpredictable and that could change tomorrow.”
The Burlington City Council created a special committee earlier this year to examine police use-of-force policies. The group was originally going to present its findings by the end of November, but it’s been granted an extension until February to complete the work instead.