The time has come to rethink how the police operate in Vermont. We have now experienced several deaths at the hands of well-meaning police officers. One took place in the front yard of Montpelier High School in full view of the public.
By now it is a familiar routine. A mentally ill person is thought to be breaking the law. They are cornered in a field, a church, a high school yard, a shower stall in Burlington. A confrontation ensues. Fear escalates on both sides. The police fear for their safety. A mental-health expert is not on the scene. The police have guns.
When the accused — usually in mental-health distress and confused — refuses to give up, he makes a threatening move, borne of fear for his own safety.
The police — fully armed and ready — open fire multiple times with enough fire power to kill someone five times over. The police investigate themselves and the attorney general follows suit, generally finding the police response “justified.’’
I asked a former chief of police in Vermont about this issue. His reply? “Training. The way we train police officers is not working.’’
I would add culture and weapons.
Caveat — I spent two years covering the crime and police in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-1980s. I saw up close the stress that comes over the police every day. But almost worse, the police see the dark, seamy side of society — the drug dealers, homeless, murder victims, rape, break-ins. They see it every day. I saw it for two years. It is terribly depressing. Cops are like hospital emergency rooms. They deal every day with the flaws of a society and they rarely get thanked. It is a very tough job.
Culture — Cops are generally politically conservative. They come from law enforcement and military backgrounds. And because they see the underside of society, they are prepared for the worst. One of the pieces of this culture is guns.
On the other side of the culture divide are minority communities. We now know that people of color fear the police. They live life in constant fear for their safety at the hands of the police. Eric Garner, Donald Neely, Michael Brown. The list goes on. And police are in danger too, especially in dangerous places.
Guns — it is time — at least in some towns in Vermont with little crime — to consider whether police should carry guns. Police in my town of Montpelier carry guns and wear bullet-proof vests on their way to get a sandwich. I suspect it is a policy for their safety.
But the other side is that police — even in tiny Montpelier — look like armed soldiers. And that is increasingly threatening to the people who live here.
So I ask — why should a police officer carry a gun in this town? The logical result is that the gun is used. And that never ends well. Why not store the gun in the trunk of the police cruiser with other weapons like tasers and shotguns? If the officer is called to a dangerous or unknown scene of an altercation, they can seek to de-escalate the situation first. If they believe the situation is dangerous to their life, they can return to the vehicle and get their weapon.
But to show up to a scene with guns drawn is an unnecessary tactic. Let’s explore changing this training and policy.
Let’s even explore changing the very term, police officer. In communities all over this country, the police are now feared by people of color and other minorities. Let’s change the very name we give them. They are after all peace officers.
They should be on foot, not in a cruiser, which threatens people. Why wear military-style uniforms? Dress the police in uniforms that do not threaten people. Their weapons are at hand only in case of a threatening situation.
I realize this may not be a viable solution to unnecessary deaths in places like New York City. But it is certainly worth a discussion in places like Montpelier and Burlington.
Vermont’s new Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling is perfectly positioned to lead this discussion about training and culture. Here is hoping he does so.
Kevin Ellis is a marketing consultant who lives in East Montpelier. This first appeared on his blog.