Burlington is no stranger to police shootings. Four years ago a mentally ill man was killed by police officers in the New North End, and last March a mentally ill man was killed downtown in his home by police, while this August our city councilors overwhelmigly passed an ordinance to criminalize behaviors often associated with homeless people. It is not clear what, exactly has changed in those 4 years, or how this new ordinance will help our growing mental health crises. We as a community need a clear plan, increased public education, and outreach to local communities affected by this crises about how to best help those in need. As a city, we need civilian oversight of our police department to ensure that our police policies are constantly monitored for equity and consistency, we need to support further deescalation trainings for our officers, and stronger mental health services and increased funding for alcohol and mental health treatment for our homeless. By doing this we can make sure we treat our homeless neighbors with compassion, fairness, and respect as members of our community, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face.
There is no question that there are some people downtown who make this city unsafe for everyone, but a lot of folks living on the street are doing their best to survive with complex trauma and years of substance abuse with the added stressor of homelessness. There are no easy answers to this growing crises of inadequate mental health services, growing poverty and income inequality, which can make those of us who have homes and strong support networks feel self-aware of the privileges we take for granted. As Kelly Devine, BBA director, recently summed up, “Everyone should feel comfortable downtown.” Yet we must do more than make everyone comfortable – we must treat these homeless folks as our neighbors even in the face of discomfort – and we should hold our elected leaders to the same expectations – or else our language will more closely treat our homeless as if they are invaders, undeserving of our city’s typical forward-thinking, progressive policies. This sort of language will inevitably hurt everyone. What incentive do homeless folks have to be decent if we treat them as outsiders, and what incentive do wealthier folks have to treat them humanely if we are constantly being told they are so different from us, so much more violent, so much outside our community that we must create laws specifically for them?
A clear plan forward led by our homeless residents and mental health workers would be ideal for helping our homeless, especially since opinion by our politicians is so divided. Councilors Tracy and Dieng want to put more money behind treatment, councilors Wright and Knodell want to treat the symptoms of homelessness, Chief del Pozo and Mayor Weinberger want to lower the visibility of homelessness so that there are less downtown public safety concerns, while also protecting our nonviolent homeless population. We need mental health professionals and those who struggle with the affliction to lead the community around helping our neighbors, as we have seen work so well with the opioid epidemic.
As an aside, I believe that it is a noble goal to protect all residents including our homeless, but moving our vulnerable populations away from the public will allow the violence in our homeless community to be less contained and less visible. Would the man at City Hall Park who had his throat slashed survive if he was out in the woods at a homeless encampment? The death of homeless resident Amos Beede last year leads me to believe the answer would be no. All the more reason to work towards integrating our homeless residents into the larger community, so that we can keep all members of our community safe regardless of where, or how, they live.
We must remember that we are working to help people, not simply solve a problem. Homeless folks not only need more patience from us, they deserve it. While it is easy to pass judgement, the real emotional and physical struggle that our homeless neighbors suffer daily is something few of us understand, which is why it would be best if we began listening to our homeless experts – our homeless and mental health professionals who work with them – and give them voices at the table when it comes to formulating new ordinances and laws, on and off a civilian-controlled police oversight commission. By doing this we can ensure that new ordinances are written and policed equitably, that we help our homeless with treatment and compassion, and by working with more marginalized voices, we can create a stronger community for all of us.
I received this letter today in my email, referencing a homeless man in Burlington who was recently in the news over punching someone in the chest. What I appreciate most is how compassionate Mark Redmond is, and how well he recognizes that many of the homeless folks downtown, the ones who will soon be treated as criminals, are often not 100% in control of the decisions they are making. Mental health issues, years of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and the numerous traumas they have experienced all play a huge role in what these neighbors of ours are going to do. I agree with the police chief that there needs to be consequences – but only for the folks who are violent and harassing others, not the ones drinking and panhandling peacefully – and we need to remember the situation all of them are in and remain compassionate while getting them the help they need.
Our police chief del Pozo is often described as a progressive reformer looking to humanize and bring compassion to 21st century policing. Mayor Weinberger and del Pozo often work hand-in-hand on finding ways to solve our city’s biggest public health issues. And in many, many ways that is exactly what he does. But too often our chief’s words do not agree with his actions.
What makes our chief the ‘most progressive chief in America’? Del Pozo has regularly pushed his officers to carry the heroin overdose drug Narcan, collaborated with health professionals to get at the root of public health issues, increased officer foot patrols, opted out of militarizing his department, advocated for drug treatment in prison, has spoken up against given heroin addicts a criminal history, and was fairly patient with a homeless man who legally carried a rifle around town for several weeks. These have all been forward-thinking ways of dealing with many of the issues our city faces, and the police chief can often be found touting similar progressive-minded measures. There is no question his willingness to treat addiction as a public health issue and his work collaborating with mental health and social service agencies has saved countless of lives and improved everyone’s quality of life.
Yet del Pozo’s history of not following through on his words, along with his unwillingness to compromise with those he disagrees with, is worrisome and needs to be looked at more closely. He often seems quick to dismiss groups and professionals that disagree with him, while often acting swiftly and independently, regardless of how the community may feel. A few examples below highlight this failure of consistency and follow-through.
When del Pozo was first hired as police chief in 2015, he held a compassionate view towards drug-fueled shoplifting.
“The other thing is getting on … the heroin problem we have here in Burlington and in Vermont. Not only the dealing itself but addiction — how to help handle the addiction problem and also the crimes associated with heroin such as property crime, burglary, robberies…So what I mean specifically is being caught in the act shooting up or committing petty property theft, those are the folks that we want to divert from a life of being saddled by a criminal record. But there does come a point where you cross over into crimes that genuinely endanger citizens physically or that are really disruptive to the community and that’s criminal, that’s the full-bore police response that you’ll get.”
A year later, with pressure from businesses and business lobbies, his tone had changed.
“I think there comes a point, after innumerable arrests for retail theft, a person can be considered to be taking an unacceptable toll on his or her community, and meaningful jail time seems appropriate,” del Pozo said.
It’s rare for shoplifting to lead to that, the chief said. He thinks it’s time for prosecutors and judges to take a new approach when it comes to chronic offenders. “Retail theft to jail, to treatment, to sobriety is a success story. An endless cycle of retail theft to fuel addiction with no consequences doesn’t help anyone, including the person with the addiction,” del Pozo said. “We need to break the cycle.”
This past April, as fentanyl overdoses and deaths were steeply climbing and the situation was feeling hopeless, Mayor Weinberger and Del Pozo, both of whom advocated for compassionate and expanded drug treatment, went back on their desire to give addicts and petty drug dealers (often the same) on-demand treatment. Instead, they advocated for harsher criminal penalties for fentanyl users anddealers. In doing so, Del Pozo not only dismissed the exhausting work of mental health professionals, trying to make his voice the most important one in the room, but also tried to shut down their valuable community voice – a deep irony for a police chief who loves making public comments.
Bob Bick, executive director of Howard Center, which opposes the new criminal penalties, compared them to the disparate penalties created by the federal government in the 1980s for powder cocaine versus crack cocaine: a well-intentioned but misguided effort to address a serious problem.
“I think that there could be potential negative outcomes, in terms of targeting whatever subset of the population sees fentanyl as their drug of choice,” Bick said. When asked about Howard Center’s opposition, del Pozo suggested it’s not the social service organization’s place to weigh in on how drugs are policed.
“Once someone dies (of a drug overdose) they’re no longer under the care of the Howard Center,” del Pozo said. It then falls to his officers and other police agencies to notify family members and conduct death investigations, he added.
The chief said that in the same way he respects Howard Center’s clinical judgments about how to treat drug addiction, the organization should respect law enforcement’s determinations about how to clamp down on the illegal drug trade. Bick described the chief as “a passionate advocate for addressing the opiate issue” but rejected the notion that Howard Center’s involvement ends when someone dies of an overdose.
“My staff is routinely confronted with the horrible aftermath of an untimely death,” he said.
Leaving alone the irony of del Pozo telling one group how to do their job but asking them not to do the same to him, this attitude, which has been increasingly pervasive, gives the impression that the police department is not interested in collaborating and listening when disagreements arise.
While the city and del Pozo have more often than not been on the compassionate side of heroin addiction (this instance notwithstanding), the city’s attitude towards alcoholism has been anything but compassionate. Research shows there’s no reason to treat one harmful addiction significantly different than another, as both require compassion, on-demand treatment, and patience.
And yet, after the recent downtown stabbings and assault, which I will talk about in another post as a larger issue of mental health services and not just alcohol consumption or ticketing, del Pozo took a decidedly different tack.
The lack of consequences is a root cause of what is an unfair burden on the rest of the community,” del Pozo said. Criminalization would allow police to bring a repeat offender before a judge and could result in jail time.
Instead of advocating for stronger mental health services, which del Pozo has done repeatedly regarding heroin abuse, del Pozo focused on criminalizing ticket-able offences, advocating for in essence a debtor’s prison. It’s important to note, too, that in this instance one of the cosponsors of the bill, Republican city councilor Kurt Wright, has made it clear that his desire is to rid the city of 10 to 25 individuals, and that they “won’t be deterred through more funding and services, as critics of the proposal contend”. This flies directly in the face of our police chief and mayor’s stated values.
His Way or the Highway
Del Pozo’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach, especially in the face of criticism, came creeping up again in June of this year. In a VTDigger article about the police chief’s Compstat and Substat meetings, we saw a rare glimpse of professionals not only making decisions for a woman who was not in the room, but also trying to double her prison sentence even though she had already agreed to 18 months.
“If she’s got an 18-month minimum, as much as you want her to stay in there, the doors might open, and she might walk out. So just be aware of that,” Thibault said…
George, the prosecutor, said that even if the SubStat team goes to great lengths and is able to get a spot for the woman in a secure out-of-state treatment facility, she might refuse to go, preferring instead to complete her sentence.
The chief asked whether the judge would be receptive if George pushed for a 36-month sentence. The prospect of a longer jail term could make treatment a more attractive option, he said.
Research shows that involuntary treatment rarely works, and when I tweeted about this and expressed my concerns about taking away a woman’s agency, del Pozo, in a since-deleted tweet, said that the concern was all on his end, and in a later response gave the impression that he and others at the table were there to single-handedly save this woman who had been addicted to heroin, detoxed in prison, yet still refused treatment. It cannot feel good to spend so much effort to try to help someone who has no interest in being saved, and yet changing the goal posts of an agreed upon sentence is legally and ethically questionable at best.
A Culture of Defense
Lastly, we come to del Pozo’s unwillingness to admit mistakes, which will be explored in more detail in another blog post about the seemingly empty promises of combating racism made by our mayor and police chief. While the chief deserves credit this past year for immediately firing an officer who lied under oath, he is often quick to defend actions of his officers, even in the face of damning evidence and public outcry.
I don’t write these words because I enjoy pointing out what I see as a growing trend of brash, uncompromising, and unapologetic behavior by our police chief. While the chief and I often disagree, I take no pleasure in writing this – I want our city to always use compassion to help our most vulnerable citizens. Yet I write this for a few reasons: 1) It is often incredibly difficult, as a regular citizen, to sit down and speak with del Pozo or communicate with him effectively. 2) It is concerning to me how often our police chief seems to miss that he is the second most powerful person in the city, and how much privilege and sometimes intimidation he exerts (especially when it comes to folks who have a history of police targeting them). 3) I believe that to best combat our opioid and alcohol public health issues, we need to not only be open and honest about our city’s troubles, but also be fair and consistent, which seems to be missing from our police chief and mayor’s actions.
Hopefully this piece will shine a light on these inconsistencies and open up more dialogue so that we can move towards a more just and collaborative city and police department.