21st Century Policing: A Message from Police Chief Shawn Burke

Our community watched a Minneapolis Police Officer murder a citizen, his accomplices wore the same uniform.  Ambient video was able to finally shine light on an officer with a troubled past, an officer who did not deserve to police, an officer who now sits in a jail cell.   I am outraged by the conduct of this officer and his accomplices; this tragedy should have never happened.

As more information comes to light about the responsible officer, particularly his service record, there will be more questions.  If the reports are accurate about the involved officer’s service record, that is evidence of failure on the part of leadership.  No one in leadership enjoys making the hard decisions related to imposing punitive and corrective measures, but that is what police executives are paid to do.  Holding ourselves accountable is critical to our success as an organization and foundational to maintaining public trust.  I suspect that there were Minneapolis Police Officers that did not want to work with Officer Derek Chauvin, having the courage to speak out about a bad cop is expected.  As a chief, your duty is simple, learn of misconduct and deal with it.

Race played a role here, we live in a society where systemic racism has marginalized persons of color for hundreds of years.  Historically the police have played a sinister role, its history that we must recognize and learn from.  Parents in our community are talking with their children about the risks they face when encountering the police because of the color of their skin.  We work very hard at socializing our police department in a way that builds trust, but the reality of how systemic racism and policing intersect is one we need to acknowledge and not be defensive about. 

I have received a number of inquiries from our community regarding the murder of George Floyd and South Burlington Police Department’s commitment to 21st Century Policing philosophy.  I have responded to these inquires individually but feel that it is important that you know what my message has been.   

The organization committed to implementing the six pillars of President Obama's 2015 task force report during Chief Whipple’s tenure.  The Policing in the 21st Century Task Force tackled a long festering epidemic in policing that involved widespread mistrust and racism in policing.   The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor illustrate there is so much work left to do.  I started in policing just after the LAPD Rodney King incident, that incident should have been the pivot point for American police agencies.  The 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City should have evoked more change.  Finally, the events of 2014 brought a degree of reckoning to American police forces, unjustified deaths at the hands of the police persist.   

The 2015 Task force report on 21st Century Policing is a resource we use constantly here at SBPD.  We examine the six pillars of the report on a regular basis with strong emphasis being placed on building trust and legitimacy within our community.  I constantly remind our team that videos such as the recent Minneapolis killing tarnish all police agencies.  It is during these critical times that the police rely on the trust built with the community and be willing to answer the hard questions; could this happen here?  Our officers are not trained to hold a handcuffed suspect on the ground in such a manner.  Our officers are trained to get a handcuffed suspect into a rescue position (on their side), assess the need for EMS, and if safe get the person into a seated position and transported. 

Police use of force is at times necessary, but the sanctity of human life must always be balanced.    Whenever force is employed, that level force must be reasonable and proportional to the situation at hand, none of this is seen in the recent video.  In 2019 we trained five instructors in the Police Executive Research Forum’s Integrated Communication, Assessment, and Tactics training curriculum.  This training is firmly grounded in a philosophy that preserves the sanctity of human life and trains officers to work with a decision-making wheel, using resources to deescalate the incident.

The organization has had various levels of training which pertain to fair and impartial policing.  We have in place the state model fair and impartial policing policy.  We are starving for education on implicit bias and systemic racism and tired of required “training” that amounts to a policy review and data quality.  Empathy can be strengthened through education, understanding the lived experiences of others, challenging ourselves, and examining our biases.  Meaningful police training in this vein is long overdue for Vermont police agencies. 

Please know that we are committed to policing this City properly, it is a duty we take seriously.  Effective policing is centered on policing by consent and on the principals of procedural justice, these elements are essential to legitimacy.  Police organizations must appreciate how perishable trust is with citizens and work hard at maintaining trust through relationships.  Diversity is something police organizations strive for, including this one.  We have enjoyed community engagement on developing our interview questions for new employees and when examining our fair and impartial policing policy, we are committed to policing this City in a way that respects our communities’ interests.   Having the right organizational culture is equally important, the culture of this organization is ethical and service oriented, our leadership is committed to maintaining this.

Lastly, this is the time for police organizations to listen to their communities.  There are citizens afraid to speak, citizens afraid to report misconduct, and many lived experiences that we can learn from and understand how systemic racism has led us.  We owe this type of reflection to our neighbors, to say racism doesn’t affect this community is the equivalent of condoning racism.  Let’s listen and learn as a community, our neighbors need us now.

Shawn Burke
Chief, South Burlington Police Department