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Hail to the Chief: Burlington's Top Cop Signs Off

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Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling

Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling leaned back in a comfy chair in the office he'll soon vacate and let slip a secret: He almost left Burlington once.

Coming from anyone else, this would be unremarkable news. But Schirling grew up in a house in Burlington's North End, graduated from the University of Vermont and spent his professional life at a police station within walking distance of his childhood home. He still lives in the city. His daughter attends Burlington High School; his son, UVM.

But more than 15 years ago, Schirling was tempted to relocate. He applied to work at the FBI, survived the two-year application process and, in January 2001, was nearly through the bureau's 10-week training program in Quantico, Va., when he got word he'd be assigned to Baltimore. He and his wife, Kathy, started house hunting. Within 48 hours, they came to the conclusion they didn't feel comfortable in the often-violent city — one potential neighbor bragged that there hadn't been a drive-by shooting in months.

The couple returned to Burlington and never looked back.

Had he stayed with the FBI, Schirling would have become a federal agent just months before the attacks of September 11, 2001, an experience that would have led to untold career opportunities. He recently talked with his roommate from the bureau's training program, who just returned from a posting in Spain.

But Schirling, 45, said he has no regrets about not joining the agency.

"There have been a couple days when I wondered, you know, what would I be doing?" Schirling said. "But I wouldn't trade this for anything. My kids got to grow up in a safe place where my wife and I grew up. Is there a better small city in the nation? I've found big cities I like and small towns I like. But in terms of in between, we've got the best."

After seven years as chief, Shirling is retiring in early July. Though he said he wants a break from police work, he isn't quitting the Queen City. He leaves behind a police department with a reputation for being ahead of its time.

"He could have succeeded in many places," Mayor Miro Weinberger said of Schirling. "We are fortunate he chose to make a life and career here. His roots were one factor in his success as chief. He understands this community and its desire to chart a different, more publicly engaged course than many of the country's police departments."

The mayor said he hopes to name Schirling's successor by June 30.

In hindsight, Schirling's climb to the top of the 137-member Burlington Police Department looked inevitable. He started working part time for the department at age 19 while studying at UVM. After he graduated in 1992, the job became full time and Schirling steadily rose from patrol officer to detective. He stumbled on just one rung of the career ladder. In 1999, when he applied for a promotion to sergeant, Schirling was rejected.

"Probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he concluded.

Why? Schirling was forced to stay in his posting as an investigator in the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. That group was just creating the statewide Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which would come to handle tricky computer forensics cases for the entire state. Schirling briefly led the task force, which exposed him to the power of technology and innovative police practices — lessons he would carry for the rest of his career.

"I would have missed the ability to really get involved and innovate for the first time, which gives you the feel for what you can do if you have the latitude," Schirling said. "We got to do some cool stuff."

Before long, Schirling won the sergeant promotion, then rose to deputy chief and, when former chief Tom Tremblay took over the Vermont Department of Public Safety, the top job in 2008.

Lean and tan, with an angular face and closely cropped gray hair, Schirling turned out to be a natural. He speaks in grammatically perfect sentences, has an aversion to cop clichés and exhibits an enthusiasm for governmental initiatives that can verge on nerdish. The outgoing chief talks excitedly about strategic plans and task forces and processes that tackle problems systematically.

In 2010 Schirling began looking for a records-management system to finally wean the department from its antiquated paper process. When he failed to find anything that met his standards, Schirling, a self-described computer geek, decided to build his own. The resulting system, which the avid sailor named Valcour after a Lake Champlain island, is now used by dozens of other law-enforcement agencies across Vermont.

Also early in his tenure, Schirling directed the department to following the principles of community policing, which emphasize taking the initiative to meet with residents and build relationships. The department now hosts an annual barbecue and open house and regular morning coffees with the public.

Schirling also participated in a two-week course for Burlington High School students as part of the school's end-of-the-year studies program. The first question came from a black student, who asked the city's top cop: "I want to know why police are killing so many black men."

His answer, as he relayed it, was typical Schirling: willing to concede a problem, but filled with data and logic in defense of police.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Schirling recalled saying. "But it's important to remember there are 1 million police officers in the country, 18,000 police departments, and there are 1 million professional encounters between the police and public every day."

Schirling has been less focused on race relations in Burlington than on how cops interact with people who are mentally ill or struggle with substance abuse problems. He's been a staunch supporter of the Howard Center Street Outreach Team, whose clinicians try to resolve conflicts before police have to be called.

Matt Young, supervisor of the Street Outreach Team, said Schirling has been a great partner. The chief sought federal funds to hire an outreach clinician who works from the police station, and has told his officers to respect the team's mission. Last year, Schirling began allowing outreach team members to carry police radios and respond directly to certain 911 calls.

"I'm emotional about Michael leaving. He's meant everything to us," Young said. "When you're working with a police department, you want the respect of all the officers. He's created a culture that's receptive to us, that gives us the room to do what we do. He's allowed us the privilege of being in that culture. I wouldn't say we have the respect of all the officers, but there's top-down respect of our work and what we're trying to accomplish."

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, conceded that the police department in Burlington has done a better job "dealing with issues presented by people undergoing some kind of mental health crisis" than others in the state.

Schirling said he expects his successor will have fewer opportunities to implement such sweeping programs. The national debate about modern policing, spurred by controversial police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, may have more influence on future changes, he said.

"There will be fewer opportunities for wholesale innovation," Schirling said. "There will be need for change, but a large cross section of that is going to be driven by the national climate."

Schirling's tenure has not been without controversy. In 2012, the department caught heat when officers fired pepper spray and rubber bullets at oil-pipeline protesters outside the Hilton hotel during the Conference of New England Governors.

Schirling and other members of his department also face a lawsuit brought by the widow of Wayne Brunette, a mentally ill man fatally shot by Cpl. Ethan Thibault in 2013. Police say that Brunette was wielding a shovel when he approached Thibault and another officer and ignored their commands to put it down. Although the department knew that Brunette was mentally ill, that information was apparently not relayed to the officers on the scene.

"Not only did the city condone Cpl. Thibault's actions as an acceptable use of deadly force, these unconstitutional practices are sanctioned under the Burlington Police Department's policy for the use of deadly force," reads Barbara Brunette's federal suit.

Schirling declined to comment on the case and, to complicate things, he and the plaintiff are old friends. Lawyers for the department have filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Schirling has been on the front lines of another seemingly insoluble problem: Vermont's opiate issue. "There are some indications that it's worsening," said the chief, noting that the city has seen an increase in overdose deaths and that officers are discovering ever more potent batches of heroin. Just last week, two brothers were found dead of suspected overdoses in a Ward Street home in Burlington's Old North End.

Schirling said he has no plans to return to law enforcement full time. He is exploring consulting opportunities both in law enforcement and technology, as well as full-time jobs that would allow him the opportunity to innovate. Although he wasn't naming names last week, Schirling said to expect a new job announcement soon. If history is any indication, it'll be right here in Burlington.

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