“If you want to go right to the heart of the issues people are wrestling with in American cities today, being a police officer is going to take you there and hold you there faster and longer than anything else you can do with your time. And it requires courage. Anyone who says you’re too smart to be a cop doesn’t understand what it means to be smart and doesn’t understand policing.” — Chief Brandon del Pozo
Here’s an excerpt from Tiffanie Wen’s article in the May-June issue of the “Dartmouth Alumni Magazine” about a police chief who
“When you think of cities on the front lines of policing initiatives in America, you may think of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, where the police forces number in the thousands.
“You don’t think of Burlington, Vermont—a city of approximately 40,000 located about 100 miles northwest of Hanover and 50 miles south of the Canadian border. But that didn’t keep Brandon del Pozo, an 18-year veteran of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), from taking the post as Burlington’s chief of police in 2015. He’s now transforming Burlington into a lab for innovative police initiatives, and emerging as a force in shaping the national conversation on policing and police reform.
“Del Pozo majored in philosophy, served in the ROTC and was a member of Kappa Chi Kappa. While serving in the Army National Guard, he joined the NYPD to give back to his community at a time when homicides in New York City were at record highs. He rose from a patrol officer working the streets of Brooklyn to lieutenant in the intelligence division, investigator of police corruption and commanding officer of two precincts. Later he helped create the department’s office of strategic initiatives.
“The 42-year-old may be one of the most educated cops in America. Del Pozo has a master’s in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a master’s in criminal justice from the City University of New York. He’s currently writing a dissertation to complete a doctorate in philosophy, also from CUNY…
“’There’s no reason for complacency in American policing right now,’ says del Pozo.
“He has such a penchant for quoting philosophers and writers in his daily conversation that one wonders if he has a photographic memory. On the roll call room at the station is a quote from Sun Tzu: “To subdue your opponent without fighting is the highest skill”—a clear nod to the current national conversation on excessive force in policing, something that del Pozo is hoping to reform…
“’He has always been more sensitive to national trends in criminal justice than other people in the field,’ says Lt. Lucas Miller, who runs the NYPD incident prevention unit and who worked with del Pozo when he was the commanding officer of the 50th Precinct. ‘I think that’s partially because of his education but also because of his world outlook. He’s always looking at the larger picture. You can see that in the last few years with the current issues in American policing, but also in what it means to be a cop and protect the community. When most of us give a nuts-and-bolts answer, Brandon will give a more philosophical one’…
With 100 officers and 40 civilian employees, Burlington’s police force is large enough—about the size of a New York City precinct—to tackle the same kind of challenges larger cities face while implementing ideas more quickly, says del Pozo…
“Del Pozo hopes Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, will become one of the leaders in reducing the need for lethal force in American policing, something he became quite familiar with last year. Less than a year after his swearing in, del Pozo faced a backlash from the community he was appointed to protect after one of his officers shot a man suffering from mental illness.
“Last March a group of Burlington officers responded to a call about Ralph ‘Phil’ Grenon, a resident suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with whom they were already familiar. For five hours the officers tried to reason with Grenon, who had stopped taking his medication for several months. When Grenon finally approached the officers wielding two large knives, officers were unable to subdue him with a Taser. He was shot multiple times by one officer and killed. Del Pozo was on the scene, standing a few feet away, when the shooting occurred.
“The incident sounds familiar, but del Pozo’s response was not. The shooting was deemed legally justified—investigators quickly cleared the officers of any wrongdoing—and del Pozo immediately gave a press conference and released body-cam footage of the incident in the name of transparency. He also said the shooting was a failure on their part.
“’[At the time], compared to other larger agencies, we had fewer nonlethal tactical resources. But that’s no different than countless other agencies within Vermont. Within those constraints, the cops did everything exactly right,’ del Pozo says. ‘So it really became a meta question about how we can create a police department that has more options and can forestall lethal encounters like that.’
“Burlington has since become one of six pilot sites for testing some strategies outlined by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The group’s recently published report, ‘Guiding Principles On Use of Force,’ includes 30 principles and suggestions to reduce unnecessary force when a suspect does not have a firearm. They include adopting a policy of de-escalation, documenting use-of-force incidents, training officers in communication techniques and equipping officers with less-lethal weapons and protective shields.
“Del Pozo has trained his officers in new de-escalation techniques and is working on outfitting officers with tools and resources they need to avoid the use of force…
“While he hopes to set a national example on these larger issues, del Pozo has never compromised on community policing. To improve his department’s relationship with the community, he reaches out to its leaders; publishes data on police traffic stops, which can be scoured for evidence of racial bias; and is actively recruiting new officers to better reflect the diversity of the city’s residents.
“’There’s this false dichotomy in America that you either have to choose the narrative of excessive urban crime or choose the narrative of brutal police, and that you’re either on the black lives matter side or the blue lives matter side,’ he says. ‘It’s a false dichotomy. Police can improve what they do and improve the services they deliver and lower the force that they use, without having to say that all police are troubled or racist or undemocratic and without saying that there isn’t serious crime in urban America that you need to police out.’
Del Pozo also capitalizes on the power of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. In 2014 he helped get every precinct in New York City on Twitter, and he now manages the Twitter account for the Burlington police. ‘The idea behind it is you have to go to where the people are. Police can’t expect citizens to always be coming to us for interactions, and if we’re not on social media there’s going to be this whole conversation happening out there that we’re not a part of,’ he says…
“His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, says del Pozo’s candor, forthrightness and ability to think outside the box made him a natural candidate for the forum’s top leadership and innovation award, which it gave to del Pozo last May. ‘Brandon is one of the up-and-coming bright stars in the future of American policing,’ Wexler says. ‘He’s not afraid to question conventional thinking, do the research and implement policies that will make a difference in the complicated society we live in. These are qualities that are going to be necessary for tomorrow’s police leaders…”