In an op-ed published Wednesday in the New York Times, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo calls on law enforcement officers to "fundamentally" change the way they use their guns and deal with people in crisis — especially when they are wielding knives.
Describing a hypothetical situation, del Pozo writes that officers almost always point a gun at a knife-wielding person and shout commands. If the person advances, the officers shoot, and everyone loses, he writes.
"Each year, American police officers shoot and kill well over 125 people armed with knives, many of them in this manner," del Pozo writes. "The public has grown impatient with seeing the same approach produce a predictably tragic result."
The chief urges his counterparts around the nation to start training officers as if their weapons were "insurance policies" rather than "persuasive devices," and suggests that American police take lessons from their unarmed colleagues across the pond.
"Barking orders as you stand there empty-handed would not only seem unnatural but also absurd," the chief writes. "Your instincts would tell you to stay a safe distance away, try to contain the person, and calm the situation."
The op-ed and its focus on deescalation exhibits the type of professional introspection that Burlingtonians have come to expect from the Ivy League-educated leader of their police force.
What the essay does not mention is the strikingly similar real-life scenario that unfolded under his watch three years ago, one that ended tragically.
Police were summoned because Grenon was ranting, and a standoff lasted several hours. Concerned Grenon might hurt himself, del Pozo sent in officers with tactical shields. They found Grenon in his shower clutching two knives. Officers fired chemical irritants into the room before attempting to use a Taser. But Grenon continued walking toward them and an officer opened fire.
Frustrated disability advocates decried the shooting, and del Pozo, just a year into his gig, was put on the defensive. He argued that his officers did everything they could to deescalate the situation. Reviews by authorities said it was legally justified.
Three years later, del Pozo said that if he could do it over, he would not let his decision to try to disarm Grenon be influenced by how long the incident was dragging on. Nor would he rely on Tasers, which proved ineffective.
Why not mention Grenon in the Times piece? Del Pozo said he didn't believe it would be "topical" to a national audience. "Everywhere in America, people can think of incidents close to home that they feel would fall into this category," he said.
Still, he does touch upon one local issue in the Times, referencing Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman's (P-Central District) suggestion to disarm the city's police force. He calls the idea a "nonstarter" in America, where police officers are forced to respond to mass shootings and other types of gun violence.
But he writes that the police profession must take it upon itself to correct course if it doesn't want politicians offering such ideas.
"We owe the public a commitment to doing everything we can to respect the sanctity of life," he writes.
Freeman wasn't aware of the op-ed when contacted Thursday. After she read it, she said she saw "a lot of positives" in his message, especially the part about guns. The nationwide debate over policing has been polarizing, she noted: "So I think this is actually a really good sign to hear so much critical thought behind some of these key issues."
"One of the problems is that we teach our police officers to lead with the gun," del Pozo writes in the Times. "We tell our officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and that they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return.
"But doing so forecloses all of the better ways to communicate with a person in crisis," he continues. "There are alternatives."
Dan Gilligan, the Burlington Police Officers' Association president, had his own thoughts about the issue. Say you don't have a gun, and a person with a knife advances on you, he said. Then what?
"I’ll tell you what you’re going to do: You’re going to get stabbed," Gilligan said. "I don't care what anybody says. That's absolutely not our job."
Gilligan agrees with some of del Pozo's points. The union president has been a negotiator for 12 years and said it is undoubtedly easier to talk people down when they are not looking at the barrel of a gun.
But Gilligan said del Pozo provides an oversimplified view of these situations. Facing potentially dangerous people safely, without a weapon, requires backup officers positioned to cover the negotiator. That takes time, Gilligan said — a rare luxury in crisis situations.
"Everything we do — from words to lethal force — is to stop a behavior," Gilligan said. "Unless you have somebody else there to provide that lethal cover for you, where you can be in a safe place to talk to somebody with a knife, then the gun has to be out."
A more realistic approach is to ensure that police officers have access to nonlethal tools, Gilligan said. He commended del Pozo for working to obtain those tools and to get officers trained to use them.
The chief writes in his op-ed that police academies should train recruits on a "wide range of skills, drills and responses" before they ever handle a firearm.
"Training should start by sending officers into scenarios where they have to solve problems without recourse to lethal force," he writes. He goes on to say that the American public would be made safer by officers whose "first instinct" is to communicate with people they encounter.
The chief's recommendations to the nation do not seem to have yet infiltrated his own department's psyche, however, as illustrated by several high-profile incidents.
In March, a Burlington man with health problems died days after an officer punched him three times. Last Friday, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan declined to prosecute the case, deciding that the officer, Cory Campbell, was acting in self-defense after Douglas Kilburn swung at him first.
Donovan did call the case “troubling,” however, and faulted the cop for “antagonistic” actions that provoked Kilburn to lash out.
“Every officer that I know has watched this body camera footage and discussed this and is very reflective about what he or she can do to avoid agitating people,” del Pozo told Seven Days on the day of Donovan's announcement.
And two black men have sued the department alleging excessive use of force for separate downtown incidents last year. Bodycam footage shows cops knocking the men unconscious without warning.
Correction, November 15, 2019: A previous version of this story contained "communication" in a quote from the op-ed when the word used was actually "communicate."