Police as guardians, not warriors

‘The recent tragedy in Minneapolis is being played out far too often across our nation’

BRATTLEBORO — I, like many of you, am angered and saddened over the events surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Law enforcement officers represent their community. In order for any law enforcement agency to be successful, it is critical for the community to trust their police officers and the police officers to trust their community.

Many departments struggle with the question, “How does law enforcement build trust with their community in an atmosphere of systemic racism?” We have struggled with that question and still do.

To compound the problem, law enforcement as a whole is judged on the extreme failures of particular departments. The actions of malicious officers, along with an attitude of indifference of other officers in their blatant disregard towards human life, has left me stunned.

We have a professional duty to protect and serve everyone in the community with dignity and respect. Whenever someone is in our custody, we owe them a duty of care.

This recent tragedy in Minneapolis is being played out far too often across our nation. Far too many encounters between law enforcement and people of color are deadly, especially those involving black men.

* * *

At the Brattleboro Police Department, we have examined and honestly assessed our relationship with the community, our training, the ethical and moral character of our officers, the competency of our supervisors, our counseling and evaluation programs, and the culture of the department and our policies.

We have made de-escalation tactics a priority in use of force trainings. Once the resistance stops or the situation is under control, the tactics need to evolve with the situation.

We are always striving to move forward to make the department better tomorrow than it was today. We cannot do it alone. Only through continued collaboration, engaging in genuine dialogue, and forming true partnerships with members and organizations of the community, can we sustain and extend positive change.

* * *

We began several years ago by reviewing and rewriting our mission statement, which sets the tone on our policing philosophy and guides the actions of the officers: “While serving the community, we recognize the differences in the conduct of people who need our help, those who make poor decisions, and those who choose to victimize others.”

Policies for or against a certain behavior will not create change - behavior is more likely to conform to overall culture than to any specific rules or policy. This new mission statement changed the culture of the department and the policing mindset of the officer.

Our vision, philosophy, values, and ethics guide our policies and the conduct of the officers and form the basis of their decision making. When officers take pride in their community and department, they in turn will promote that positive energy in their interactions with the public.

Ethics and values also mean that every officer has a duty to intervene when witnessing a wrong being committed by another officer.

Officers must have compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings, essential qualities for successful law enforcement.

Empathy is the ability to not only understand someone else's feelings but to share those feelings as well. Compassion begins where empathy leaves off. If empathy is an understanding of another's feelings, then compassion means putting that understanding into action. Compassion is characterized by a willingness to purposely assist others and to selflessly put the needs of others before one's own without expecting anything in return.

Defining compassion should sound very similar to describing a police officer.

* * *

As we changed BPD's culture, we rewrote our policies to reflect the culture, reinforced policy with training, and hold everyone accountable to the standards through monthly counseling and evaluations.

We, like other organizations, have high performers and poor performers. Our process of effective training, supervision, and evaluation identifies and improves the poor performers or transitions them out of the department. Ideally, this happens before they can do any significant damage to the community or negatively influence the officers they work with.

Sometimes we fail, but we will not allow an emphasis on “warrior” policing or other deviations from Brattleboro's and our department's expectations to persist. A department with a culture that tolerates poor performers will constantly have to salvage their partnerships within the community and will be in constant damage control mode.

* * *

One more word about the “warrior” model and the “guardian” model of policing.

As reflected in the police department's mission, we strive to always employ the guardian model, and 99 percent of the time we are able to do so. In contrast to what is happening in cities across America, Brattleboro's demonstrations (including the very large one downtown on Sunday) have remained peaceful and not turned violent or destructive. It is a model for all the other cities and towns to emulate.

The Brattleboro Police Department is a partner with those who peacefully demonstrate for racial justice and against police brutality. But our duty to protect the community from “those who choose to victimize others” will put us at odds with demonstrators who threaten people or damage property. I am confident that together we will be able to avoid such an outcome in our town.

I am grateful for our community partnerships and our shared accomplishments these past several years. Please continue to work with us to further build trust and strengthen our community.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates