The police department serving Vermont's largest city announced this week it will not participate in the U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 program. The program, which has come under scrutiny in the past year in communities around the country, allows used military equipment to have a second life in the hands of police agencies.
"There's no shadow police department here," said Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department. "The police force you see is the police force you're going to get. We're not going to disappear into a phone booth and come out as a commando."
Chief del Pozo noted that after clashes between protesters and heavily-armed police in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens around the country have expressed concern that intimidating military gear could make police look more like strike forces than community guardians.
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"I think, ultimately, citizens will give us more leeway and more trust, and the benefit of the doubt, in certain cases, if we've said from the beginning, 'We're a police force, not a military force,'" del Pozo told necn.
Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, agreed that it does not make sense for a city like Burlington to build a local arsenal of military surplus. He and del Pozo said if a large-scale emergency were to happen, they are confident nearby agencies, including the Vermont State Police, would be able to share their tactical resources.
"We can stay focused on what I think is important in 21st-century policing," Weinberger said. "Foot patrols; building relationships between the police and community members; and using data analysis--combined with new police technology like body cameras--to have a real impact in places around the city where the Burlington police are working."
Weinberger and del Pozo acknowledged it was not terribly difficult for Burlington to make the decision to end participation in the 1033 program, because it didn't have much military gear in the first place. The department said up until this summer, it only had two sets of night-vision goggles through the program. Those have been returned, del Pozo added.
Chief del Pozo said the department also had received a truck through the 1033 program, but he noted that vehicle was retired some time ago.
In 2014, Chief Leonard Stell of the Swanton Police Dept. told WPTZ-TV that his department has really benefited from the 1033 program, by getting equipment the small community would otherwise have struggled to afford.
"It's been a great program," Chief Stell said last fall.
Stell said last year the equipment Swanton received through the 1033 program included computer monitors, three shotguns, a boat, and a mammoth power generator that was used in wartime to heat and cool large tents.
"So if we have a natural disaster, or a manmade disaster, within our community, we'll have the ability to bring a tremendous amount of portable electricity or heat or air conditioning to the site," Stell told WPTZ’s Steward Ledbetter, describing the power generator.
For reasons like that, del Pozo noted he is not at all condemning the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. His view is simply that it is not the right fit for Burlington right now.