At noon on Thursday, four brand new Burlington police recruits, dressed in dark suits and looking serious, arranged a lunch spread that included potato salad, sandwiches and peach pie.
The Burlington Police Department was hosting about 20 imams, ministers, rabbis and nuns. They sat around plastic tables making small talk. Some came in ankle-length gray robes and clerical collars; others wore floral skirts.
Del Pozo and his visiting friend, Dean Esserman, who is the police chief in New Haven, Conn., did most of the sermonizing at first. They emphasized the importance of sharing ideas across departments; del Pozo noted that he cribbed the luncheon concept from Esserman.
Cléophace Mukeba, left, talks about diversifying the BPD ranks, while Chief Brandon del Pozo chats with Farhad Khan and Imam Islam of the Islamic Society of Vermont.
When they turned over the floor, Sally May, an associate minister at Burlington’s First Congregational Church, asked del Pozo why police are reluctant to publicly weigh in on officer-involved shootings.
“If other police will speak against it, it would do a heck of a lot for me and my confidence in police in general in this country,” she said, on the verge of tears.
The so-called “blue wall of silence” is problematic, del Pozo admitted. He then decried the killing of Tamir Rice — Cleveland police shot the 12-year-old black boy, who had a toy gun, in 2014 — calling it a “profound catastrophic failure of policing.”
But, del Pozo said, not all killings are so unambiguous, and there’s a limit to when and how much he’ll speak out. “You have to worry about police getting in the habit of commenting on things that are open legal proceedings in other jurisdictions.”
Farhad Khan, president of the Islamic Society of Vermont, nudged the chief to address the case of Tamir Rice in racial terms, asking, “If it had been a white kid would they have been that quick to shoot him or not?”
“There’s a Harvard economist who’s doing research into that and he says maybe, maybe not,” del Pozo said. Either way, “We all wonder about that because there are genuine racial and religious problems in our country … Even if the best empirical study says that you stand an even chance of being shot, there’s still the onus of being black in this country.”
A little later, Cléophace Mukeba, a deacon at the First Congregational Church who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo a decade ago, raised another criticism.
“You can see already that there is no diversity,” he said gesturing towards the four recruits — all white males.
Del Pozo, who had earlier acknowledged the uniformity of his new officers, noted that it generally takes “one to two generations” for members of new immigrant populations to begin to join police departments.
Another challenge, he said, is the entry test required at the Vermont Police Academy, which includes outdated questions.
Mukeba, who has a master’s degree, responded with incredulity: “We went to school here ... You mean [we] cannot pass that test?”
Del Pozo responded, “It’s a fact that we’re losing a lot of applicants on the test, and we [have] lost applicants of color on the test. I don’t care about math or [converting] Fahrenheit to Celsius — that’s why we have computers and smartphones. I want cultural competency.”
Afterwards, Mukeba cornered the officer in charge of recruitment to press the point. Nearby, an imam chatted with a priest. Del Pozo told a reporter he was pleased that the conversation had gone beyond exchanging pleasantries.