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Burlington's New Head Of Police Reform Outlines Big Picture Approach

A Black man speaks at a podium
Liam Elder-Connors
YMCA of Greater Burlington President and CEO Kyle Dodson was appointed the Burlington Director of Police Transformation on Sept. 25.

In response to demands for policing reform, the city of Burlington has hired a new “Director of Police Transformation.”

Recent protests against police brutality in Vermont's largest city led municipal leaders to put a renewed focus on reforming the Burlington Police Department. Racial justice activistsspent a month camping in front of the city's police station and called for the firing of three officers involved in controversial use-of-force incidents.

One of those officers took a buyout from the city, and the other two remain on the force. In addition to the buyout, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger introduced several initiatives aimed at increasing trust in the department. A key part of his plan was the appointment of Kyle Dodson as the director of police transformation.

More from VPR: City Council Approves Buyout Of Burlington Cop After A Month Of Protests

Dodson, the President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Burlington, began his work with the city last week. He said so far, it’s been an “unbelievable amount of networking.”

VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with Kyle Dodson recently, and their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Kyle Dodson: I'm embedded in the police department, and notwithstanding all of the concerns about policing, some of which as it relates to bias, and BIPOC communities, some amount of which is certainly true, it’s still a group of human beings. And they are responding predictably to what is an onslaught of community concern like any human would. And so they're hunkered down and feeling beleaguered, which are not the best circumstances for trust.

And we have some hammers in this, but the changes we really want are not hammer changes. We're forced at some level by that which is expedient and practical to go after low-hanging fruit. But the really difficult stuff, I would argue, is the subtle, nuanced, complex, deeply-embedded, rooted-in-institutions things. And it's just, it's challenging to go after that stuff. Not impossible. We have some tools and some experience, but it's difficult.

So that was a long story to say: I've been connected. I've had lots of meetings internally. Yesterday I met with three or four internal people. I continue my connections with the BIPOC community, because this work is also dependent upon that, my ability to be seen as credible and trusted by the BIPOC community is critical to this work.

Liam Elder-Connors: Well, I want to get into some more specific things. On the same day that Mayor Weinberger announced your appointment, he also announced a number of initiatives aimed at improving policing in the city. Some of those included regular release of body camera footage and police disciplinary records. Those aren't new ideas. I mean, the city's been trying to implement those for at least a year now. How are you planning to push those reforms forward in your new position?

Most of the people involved in these decisions, the police commission, the council, the committees they put together, everyone's a volunteer. They have day jobs. This is my day job, our relationships. I'm one of the people involved that’s one of the longest-standing Burlington residents, people who move around in the business social scene. So I have a series of relationships that I think are pretty broad and deep.

And then perspective: There are a limited number of BIPOC folks who are involved in these conversations. And hopefully everyone would agree that although it's not the only angle, having BIPOC perspectives in the whitest state of the union on issues that deeply impact the BIPOC community has the potential to bring value.

"The dynamics that are playing out are systemic institutional dynamics. But the interactions that create those dynamics generally happen with individuals. Individual people are getting treated as group dynamics, and that's really hard. And we got to move that once again to a human level." — Kyle Dodson, Burlington Director of Police Transformation

When it comes to some of the specific policies, I mean, like the release of investigations into officer conduct, what level of information do you support being released? For example, would you support public disclosure of names of officers under investigation? Is that kind of the level of detail that you're getting into with your work?

So I imagine we will, Liam, but as you point out at the top of this conversation, I’ve been [here] a weekend, and I'll be honest, before this, I had more than enough work at the Y. It’s a $10 million organization, over 100 employees, COVID time. So I was not paying attention to these things. So it's brand new, as you just heard a little bit of what I've been doing. So I don't want to jump to conclusions. I'm a deliberative person. I'm an analytical person. And all of the content that I need to make decisions, I just don't have it yet.

Well, we're at a moment in this country and in Vermont where it seems there is a strong desire among the public to change the way policing works. And, you know, while some departments like Burlington have indicated they're willing to update their practices, you know, police departments are large, powerful institutions, and often when they're under fire, like you mentioned earlier, organizations are reluctant to make significant changes.

And given that your title is director of police transformation, how are you going to live up to that, and balance the public desire for reform with potential trepidation from the police?

Probably the first answer to a question would be, miraculously. The dynamics that are playing out are systemic institutional dynamics. But the interactions that create those dynamics generally happen with individuals. Individual people are getting treated as group dynamics, and that's really hard. And we got to move that once again to a human level. Humans don't respond to that well.

And so I hope that I can help the community do a little disaggregation so that we can increase compassion, empathy all around. The reasons for compassion, empathy are difficult. But I'm a proponent. I think that there's more movement that can occur through understanding and some sort of relational movement than can come through a mandate and something that is the main reason the person does it is for fear of the consequences of not doing it. That is a tool that needs to be used. But if that's the only tool, I don't we're going to be successful. We'll probably create a new set of problems.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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