One Year In, Burlington's Police Chief Reflects On Use Of Force And Opiate Addiction

Sep 15, 2016

It's been a year since Burlington welcomed its newest police chief to the city. Brandon del Pozo spent 18 years with the New York City Police Department before taking over as the chief of the Burlington Police.

Even before taking the job, he faced challenges. An academic paper he wrote years ago seemed to imply that there was a place for racial profiling in policing. After a contentious confirmation hearing, the Burlington City Council overwhelming voted to approve del Pozo's appointment.

VPR spoke with Chief del Pozo about his first year on the job and where he wants the department to go in his second year.

VPR: Back in March, after a five-hour standoff with Burlington police, a man known as Ralph Phil Grenon, with a history of mental illness, was shot and killed. Have you made any changes to the protocol that officers officers follow in these kinds of situations?

Brandon del Pozo: "One thing to understand and to stress is that police officers don't come to work wanting to take a life. These are events that are tragic for the families, for the person involved and for the police as well.

"You know, one of the things I found is that in Vermont, police departments, I think, really strive towards using the minimum amount of force. But where we needed to to make innovations [is in] tactics and techniques, the equipment and the training that that really de-escalates and brings about less lethal encounters."

A recent study found in Burlington a disproportionate number of people of color are stopped for traffic violations. Is this something that your department is addressing?

"Yes. As many listeners undoubtedly know, Vermont is a state where it's a matter of law that police agencies have to collect car-stop race data including outcomes and provide it for analysis.

"Our own analysis finds that if you're a black male between the ages of 18 and 26, the chances of you getting searched by a police officer while driving are are much higher ... I'm not comfortable with it, but part of it is is being candid with the public about that fact." - Chief Brandon del Pozo

"Not only do we comply with that, but we go two steps further. One is putting that information online. We have a transparency portal. It's easy to find on the Internet and we have an analyst so that internally we have the power to say it's not just outsiders analyzing our data, we’re doing it ourselves.

"And we do find, however, that if you're here in Burlington, our own analysis finds that if you're a black male between the ages of 18 and 26, the chances of you getting searched by a police officer while driving are are much higher than if you're a white driver, and we're less likely to find contraband.

"That's a fact. We're examining that right now. I want to reduce that outcome. I'm not comfortable with it, but part of it is is being candid with the public about that fact."

How do you see using data to guide policing in Burlington?

"I think that one of the ways that data can be really helpful is in the opiate crisis. Right now, our principal measures, the ones that keep on coming up in the county and to some extent in the state, are the number of people who die from overdoses and the length of the waiting list here in Chittenden County.

"The waiting list, to me, is like unemployment. Some people stop looking for work, some people stop looking for treatment. For us to to really get a handle on where to go with opiates and how to allocate our resources and how to take our scarcity and and get the best effect out of it, we need to have measures that go well, well beyond the two I've just described.

"We all have bits and pieces of a puzzle that if we put together with data and come together, we can really respond in a way that delivers value given the scarcity of resources that we have."

"[That data] exist in pockets in the police department, DCF [the Department for Children and Families], probation and parole corrections, the Howard Center, UVM Medical Center. We all have bits and pieces of a puzzle that if we put together with data and come together, we can really respond in a way that delivers value given the scarcity of resources that we have. I think that's one of the the big ways forward.

"And just in a completely opposite sort of trivial sense, we did, I think, a very good job of moving a lot of the public intoxication and urination and disorder from, for example, Cherry Street [and] North Street. I was happy to look at the data and show that we did that while issuing fewer tickets at those locations."

How do you and the officers in this department talk about the opiate crisis?

"One of the things that comes up is that the people who may have been alcoholics in years past or may have been listless, were committing petty crimes, are now the people who are the most vulnerable to heroin addiction.

"Now, let’s be clear, there are folks up on the hill in the wealthiest parts of the city and in our universities who are doing it, but the coping mechanisms they have in place and the resources they have are really strong. But there are these folks in our working class neighborhoods, folks without those resources, who are probably underemployed.

"I think that fixing an economy and fixing a culture and fixing a social network is what's going to lead us out of this [opiate crisis], part and parcel with the treatment."

"The mayor [Miro Weinberger] and I are working on 10 principles for our response to opiates. One of the principles, and I'm probably not articulating it perfectly, [is] that the addiction that occurs, the initial choice to use opiates, a choice and Vermonters make, these choices are for a reason, and keeping them off of it is Vermonters choosing not to use opiates.

"I guess what I'm saying is that the things that lead to the initial use, those social factors are not much different than what has led folks to hit the bottle, to use other drugs, to voice discontent with what opportunities the state's afforded them, and I think that fixing an economy and fixing a culture and fixing a social network is what's going to lead us out of this, part and parcel with the treatment."

I wonder if there are some people that hear that answer and might say, 'Addiction is a disease someone has, it's not so much a choice.' You're talking about personal responsibility with that choice.

"I don't mean to say it's a choice and you choose to use it. What I mean to say is that if your Vermont is a ski pass that you can't afford, a job you can't get, a house that's a fortune to heat in the winter and a lot of underemployment and boredom, then using heroin to medicate sounds maybe like a great option.

"If your Vermont is a ski pass that you can't afford, a job you can't get, a house that's a fortune to heat ... and a lot of underemployment and boredom, then using heroin to medicate sounds maybe like a great option."

"It’s not just, 'Hey, buck up and don't use it.' It's, 'What kind of social networks and economy and society are we creating where the use of heroin becomes attractive?'

"The folks that are wealthy and have more choices, they could get swept up in this and they are. There's a lot of heroin use going on in very wealthy enclaves. But that's not what results in human trafficking, that's not what results in retail theft.

"When you look at what's weighing Vermont down, [it's] the struggle of of working class people for whom the drug becomes an attractive choice based on their circumstances, and then [those] who struggle with keeping up the addiction. I mean, that's where the work has to be done to rehabilitate the state."

Where do you want the Burlington Police Department to be a year from now?

"I'd like the Burlington Police Department to be a more diverse police force that meets or exceeds the diversity of the city. That's a low bar, because this is not a very diverse place.

"I'd also like us to be well on the road of being one of the most innovative forces when it comes to the use of data in making deployment and policing decisions.

"You'll also see that we're going to make a real effort to have our policing, in general, vetted by professionals to get the best public health outcomes, because opiates are a public health crisis. They're not a law enforcement crisis, that's just one component.

"And I really want us to be a regional leader in how we de-escalate, not just through talk, which is extremely important in verbal tactics, but also how we have the right inventory of equipment and physical techniques to subdue people and get them to help without using lethal force. You're going to see us continuing to strive for all those things in the next year."