Is Burlington Police de-escalation training working?
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington Police Department earlier this week praised officers for using bean bag rounds to subdue a man they say was in a mental health crisis. According to department data, use-of-force incidents have been on the decline, but questions remain about the tactics and the training.
Video captured by our cameras on the Burlington waterfront Wednesday showed where police used non-lethal rounds to subdue a man who was harming himself with a knife. Acting Police Chief Jon Murad says those weapons were used to take the man into custody after he moved at officers with the knife.
“This incident resolved itself the way we hoped that it would. Was it the best kind of resolution? No. A talk-down is always better than a takedown. But if we have to get to the point where force is used, we want it to be as minimum as possible,” he said. It also needs to be in accordance with the law and statewide use-of-force policy. Murad says use-of-force incidents are determined by the behavior of the person police are interacting with.
Other events involving mental health crises in the city have not ended the same way. Seven years ago, when 76-year-old Phil Grennon was having a psychotic episode and allegedly threatened to stab people, officers broke into his home and shot him to death.
“We’ve learned from previous incidents in the agency’s history and we want to continue to learn,” Murad said.
According to department data, use-of-force incidents have been on the decline over a five-year span, from 241 in 2017 to 188 in 2021. Use-of-force cases prompted the occupation of Battery Park three years ago and ongoing calls for more police oversight. As the department standards around use-of-force incidents change. The department this week highlighted a video of officers being trained in a new way, using the Japanese martial art, Jujitsu. Murad says this type of training allows officers to safely control a person in a less violent way, avoiding kicking, punching, or striking them.
“We are focused on whether the department is actually using de-escalation to the extent that it is able to. There are several incidents that we’ve observed in which de-escalation really did not happen or did not adequately happen,” said Stephanie Seguino with the Burlington Police Commission. She says although the department is moving in the right direction, they are still lacking in some areas, specifically in regard to racial disparities. “If you have two disorderly conduct incidents -- one is a Black person, one is a white person -- is there a difference in the way that the Black person is treated relative to the white person? That is the kind of thing we are interested in. I think we, as a commission, think the department can do better.”
“We want every single use-of-force to be within our policy, within the law, and within directive. That is determined by the behavior of the person with whom we are interacting in that moment,” Murad said.
The Burlington Police Commission is also working to implement several key recommendations outlined in the 2021 CNA report by a Virginia-based consultant. Seguino says they are focused on changes that would require additional mental health and racial equity training for officers.
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