- Oliver Parini
- Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo
A racially charged incident moved people to gather outside Burlington City Hall on two separate occasions last week. Last Thursday night, more than 200 formed a tight semicircle in front of the building, and speakers focused their ire on two primary targets: whoever left Ku Klux Klan fliers at the homes of two African American residents; and the Burlington Police Department, for not reacting swiftly enough.
Toward the back of the crowd, neither hiding nor drawing attention, Burlington's new police chief stood in uniform. Brandon del Pozo knew in advance that public officials would not be invited to speak at the rally — he'd read as much on Facebook — but he said he felt it was important to show up.
Del Pozo hasn't gotten much of a honeymoon in Burlington. In his first two months on the job, he has dealt with a cop charged with committing a violent crime, a controversy involving an officer who shot a Colchester man, the arrest of a prominent environmental activist and a courthouse rape. The 18-year veteran of the New York City Police Department spent most of last week at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford, getting his Vermont law-enforcement certifications.
He's been able to make one proactive policy change since he started in September: In a nod to national concerns about municipal police officers becoming too "militarized," del Pozo announced the Burlington Police Department would stop accepting surplus military gear from the Pentagon.
Otherwise, though, the chief has been responding to one crisis after another. "Trying to make progress in a police department is like trying to refit a ship at sea," del Pozo, 40, told Seven Days. "And in this case, it's like refitting a ship that's been sailing through a series of storms."
Thus far, del Pozo has chosen to navigate by being candid and highly visible. Before the racial justice rally on Thursday, he hobnobbed with and delivered a speech to members of the Burlington Business Association. Many in the crowd nodded vigorously as he spoke of the need to collaborate with merchants to keep commercial areas safe, citing New York City's Times Square as a successful example.
Like his predecessor, Michael Schirling, the new chief spoke in complete sentences, exuding an eloquence befitting a guy with three master's degrees — in criminal justice, philosophy and public administration. But del Pozo is more at ease than Schirling, whose militaristic reserve lent him a technocrat vibe. In modern political parlance, the new chief passes the backyard barbecue test. At the BBA event, he sipped a Diet Coke as a steady stream of citizens came up to make his acquaintance.
Later that evening, post-rally, he attended a public safety committee meeting at the Fletcher Free Library.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said del Pozo's energy, and his willingness to throw himself into the public eye, has served him well. "It has been a notably intense couple months, but I think he has responded well to it," Weinberger said. "Burlingtonians expect a lot from their police department and their chief, and I think over his first couple months Brandon has demonstrated that he has the ability to handle the huge range of issues."
Since he comes from the outside, the mayor noted, del Pozo "needs to understand the Burlington context."
His crash course has given the new chief plenty of insight into the Queen City and its relationship to law enforcement: "Burlington has a really engaged populace that really cares about justice and equality and responsiveness in government and openness of government, which are values I hew closely to," said del Pozo. "Citizens here have the opportunity to really take issues to heart that cities simply trying to beat back violent crime don't have the luxury of doing."
Del Pozo, a Dartmouth College graduate, had hoped for a less eventful introduction to Burlington. The drama started with his controversial appointment. Though the city council voted 11-0 to hire him, protesters questioned the tactics of his former employer — specifically the NYPD's practice of targeting Muslims after 9/11 — and the appropriateness of an academic paper del Pozo wrote in which he said the "ungainly" practice of racial profiling was potentially helpful in certain circumstances.
On his third day on the job, he attended what should have been a low-key community event — Coffee With the Chief — with residents at the Bagel Café and Deli in Burlington's New North End. Instead, reporters peppered del Pozo with questions about Cpl. Ethan Thibault, a 15-year police veteran, who had been charged the night before with domestic assault for allegedly beating a woman on multiple occasions.
The chief initially suspended Thibault with pay, pending the criminal case, but has since allowed Thibault to return to administrative desk duty, he told Seven Days last week. Del Pozo said he didn't like the idea of Thibault working out in the field with a gun but reasoned he should contribute something in exchange for a paycheck.
He struck a similar balance in responding to Bill McKibben's one-man protest in downtown Burlington a few weeks ago. The writer and environmental activist blocked a pump at Simon's Quick Stop & Deli to draw attention to a recent media report that the oil giant Exxon understood the risks of climate change 30 years ago but chose to keep it secret.
Del Pozo, who said he admires McKibben and has read a few of his books, wanted to make sure the first act of civil disobedience on his watch "was handled in the right way." So he personally attended and supervised McKibben's uneventful arrest on October 15.
Within a week, though, headlines were harsher.
The Burlington Free Press reported that an arrest warrant had been issued for a man accused of raping a woman in a bathroom in the Edward J. Costello Courthouse. Though the warrant was a public document, reporters questioned why, seven days later, the police department had still not announced that a crime had been committed in the public building.
Del Pozo, in turn, criticized the media for reporting on the warrant for Robert Rosario. He claimed that coverage caused the suspect to flee for the Bronx, where he was eventually arrested.
The chief also chastised reporters for publishing Rosario's name. He argued that, because the incident was a so-called "acquaintance rape," naming him would reveal the identity of the victim, at least in some circles.
It was a dubious assertion. The majority of sex assaults are committed not by strangers, but by somebody known to the victim. Media outlets generally name the alleged perpetrator but almost always refrain from identifying victims of alleged sex crimes, as happened in this case. The connection between Rosario and his alleged victim received attention only because del Pozo emphasized it in his critique.
In an interview, del Pozo promised that over time, he'd be viewed as an advocate of media transparency. He chalked up the courthouse conflict to its unusual circumstances: The rape occurred in a public place that is meant to be secure, and the situation involved a search for a fugitive.
"I think this was one of those cases where it was exceptional, where there was no playbook between the press and police as to how to handle it," he said.
Days after Rosario's arrest, del Pozo again found himself jousting with local media outlets.
On November 2, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan held a press conference to announce that he had determined that two Burlington police officers acted lawfully when they shot and wounded a distraught Colchester man.
The investigation was complicated by the fact that the officers turned off their body cameras during the September standoff. Last year, Burlington police embraced the recording devices as a way to record confrontations and increase transparency.
Donovan and Burlington Deputy Chief Bruce Bovat defended the officers' decision to hit the "off" switch. They said the two men feared the red lights on the cameras would give them away in the darkness, as they tried to negotiate with a man who had threatened them and whom they believed to be armed.
A short time later, though, Vermont Public Radio reported that the user's manual for the body camera explains that in potentially dangerous situations, the red light can be turned off while the camera is recording. Within hours, Donovan was forced to announce that he was reviewing the Burlington officers' statements to state police investigators, to ensure they had been honest about why they chose not to film the altercation.
Police acknowledged that they rushed the cameras into service, but del Pozo stood by the officers, saying only that the department will use what happened as a "learning experience."
"Our officers are greatly relieved to hear this shooting was found to be lawful and that they can keep the camera on without light and sound," he said. "They were dismayed because they were worried it would reopen or cast doubt on a very traumatic event."
His department's response to the KKK flier has been tougher to shake off.
After the fliers, which read, "Join the Klan and Save Our Land," were discovered, the father of one of the recipients called the Burlington police. A dispatcher dismissed him, saying the incident was not a crime.
Del Pozo later criticized the dispatcher in a public rebuke — a rarity in law enforcement.
"In my police department, the only person who gets to decide if a bias-related incident is a crime or not is the chief of police. So I'll take responsibility for that very curt fact-finding mission of my dispatcher," he said in a press conference.
In a separate interview, del Pozo told Seven Days: "I've made no bones about standing up for my police officers and employees when they have acted properly or deserved the benefit of the doubt. But I did listen to that tape, and I was not happy with that interaction between that dispatcher and the father."
Del Pozo said he intends to send department dispatchers to racial bias training at the Vermont Police Academy in the coming months.
A few days later, he announced that his officers had tracked down the suspect in the KKK case, and Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan was thinking about bringing charges. The chief praised the detective work in the case, noting that numerous tips from the public assisted in the investigation.
Will that outcome be enough for people such as Senowa Mize-Fox, an organizer of Thursday night's protest? During the rally, she suggested del Pozo and city officials would have swept the KKK incident under the rug had she and other demonstrators not drawn attention to it.
Mize-Fox, a City Market employee, also acknowledged that del Pozo, who stood a few feet away, should be commended for showing up.
A few people, including some of the organizers, came over and shook his hand. A TV crew wrangled him for a quick interview. Del Pozo chatted amiably with a couple of patrol officers on hand and listened to the speeches.
Toward the end, he walked up to a Seven Days reporter and began talking excitedly about the law-enforcement reforms he wants to implement in Burlington. That could include a citizen committee to review footage from police body cameras. He said he wants to have a small team of officers who report directly to him and act as liaisons to neighborhood groups. Del Pozo said repeatedly that it's not healthy when the only interactions between city residents and their police are the ones that result from calling dispatch or 911.
That will change, he assured, adding: "I just need a little breathing room."