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State's First Black Police Chief Starts In Montpelier As Nation Reckons With Racial Injustice

Montpelier City officials estimate that 5,000 people turned out for a protest Sunday against police violence and racism.
Peter Hirschfeld
Protesters march against police violence and racism in Montpelier earlier this month.

Brian Peete is the incoming new police chief for Montpelier. He's been working at the department since the 15th and he'll be sworn in on July 1. He's taking the position at a time of massive national protests against racism in policing across the country. The process of Peete's hiring started before this most recent wave of demonstrations began. But Montpelier officials believe he is also the first Black police chief to serve in the state of Vermont.VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Peete. Their interview is below, it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You say you want to start your new job with what you've called a listening circuit. Who do you want to hear from?

Well, I want to hear from the people that I serve, the citizens of Montpelier. I especially want to hear from the men and women of the Montpelier police department, their families as well, and from those in the state because, especially with everything that's going on right now, this this has to be a national dialog on how we look at moving forward on not only policing culture, but as a policing culture, but as an institution at large.

More from VPR: Police Reform Bills In Montpelier Get Pushback From Both Cops And Their Critics

What do you think about the current state of the Montpelier department?

Montpelier has been a guilty, personal pleasure of mine. When I was in Chicago, we were working with the inspector general's office for public safety and police accountability, not only to monitor the Chicago Police Department, but [also to look for] what might be some good examples and some good directions that we could point the department to. And throughout this research, I've looked at Vermont. And two of the biggest places that kept coming up were... Burlington and what's gone on in Montpelier. They have been implementing community service-oriented policing practices since before they were the hot topic. And then coming here, it's pretty much everything that I thought it would be. It's a very professional police force, a very tight-knit group, and it's people who genuinely want to serve the communities. And I want to make sure I can continue adding to that legacy.

I'm wondering what you think about calls to reform or even to defund the police.

[For] every institution within our country, at the municipal, state or federal level, it's incumbent upon

"While police agencies do have some challenges ahead of us in how we get through implicit biases [and] those challenges that come with his job, we still have a responsibility." - Brian Peete, incoming Montpelier Police Chief

them to always look for ways to get better. We have to challenge ourselves and policing. And in particular, we have a history of doing good work and doing not-so-good work. So this is going to be a very complex, robust and emotional conversation that we all have to have. But defunding police departments, it is something I think is a terrible idea. While police agencies do have some challenges ahead of us in how we get through implicit biases [and] those challenges that come with his job, we still have a responsibility. The majority of people who have sworn an oath are dedicated to saving lives, to improving their communities. The heart is there, the desire is there. And an overwhelming majority of police officers want to go out there and do the right thing. You can't throw the  baby out with the bathwater.

I'd like to zero in on another point that's being argued right now in Montpelier. Legislators in Montpelier are debating whether to end the use of chokeholds. The Senate passed a bill that would eliminate chokeholds, but Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling says an exception should be carved out for using such holds if lethal force is warranted and if officers are in an environment where they are unable to use a firearm. Do you agree with Michael Schirling on that point?

Yes, I do. You would not use chokeholds trying to gain control of an individual that you may be, for whatever reason, placing an arrest for. But there are situations that happen, unfortunately a lot, in which officers are fighting for their lives or fighting for the life of someone else. In those instances, if you're authorized to use deadly force, then I think it's acceptable to put yourself into a position to save yourself and then immediately render aid. It's a very complex issue. We need to look at a cultural shift and we need to to continue to monitor our training to make sure that we're using the tools that have been entrusted to us in a very responsible way. And remember that we need to preserve the dignity and the respect of human life.

More from VPR: Activism, Reform In A Country Built On Racism: A Conversation With Vt. Racial Justice Leaders

Can you tell me how it feels to be the first Black police chief in the state of Vermont and how that distinction is weighing on you, if in fact it is?

It is. It has not gone unnoticed by myself. There is pressure there, but it's an awesome, awesome opportunity. And to me, it just shows that the country is progressing and Vermont is a progressive place. So I'm grateful for that opportunity. While it's something to be celebrated, if it should not be something to be pointed out, because what we'd like to do is celebrate those things, but also focus on what unites us and what makes us all the same. The fact that we all want good communities to raise our children in, good school systems, we want great service from our elected officials and all the same opportunities, not just in black and white, but that spans everything. So socioeconomic justice, institutional justice - this is all what we want, is what we are supposed to have. And we need to concentrate on those things that bind us together.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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