Experience Counts: Shawn Burke settles in as police chief and discusses the issues facing South Burlington

Home » City » Experience Counts: Shawn Burke settles in as police chief and discusses the issues facing South Burlington

Thursday October 11, 2018

South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke looked pretty comfortable seated at his desk at the police station last week. It was Friday afternoon before Columbus Day weekend, the building was quiet, and Burke had an hour to sit down with The Other Paper and talk about the way forward.

Just the week before, longtime and well-respected Police Chief Trevor Whipple retired after 12 years at the helm in South Burlington. Burke was hired last spring after 21 years with the Burlington Police Department, where he ended his career as deputy chief of operations. He started working in South Burlington in August, and has spent the last few months learning the new job under Whipple.

There weren’t many personal touches in Burke’s office during the interview Friday, but he explained he was preparing to make the move to the chief’s office next door.

“It’s the same size, but it has better furniture,” he said with a laugh.

After over 20 years policing the City of Burlington, Burke, 46, is very familiar with Vermont’s most urban landscape here in Chittenden County. But South Burlington is not Burlington, and Burke wants the citizens here to reach out with their needs and expectations.

“It’s different from Burlington, where you can go out and interact with people,” Burke said. “South Burlington is more decentralized. It doesn’t have the same urban landscape, so I hope the citizens are eager to interact and I can find out what they need. ”

Traffic and Theft

The two areas that draw the highest percentage of routine incidents for South Burlington Police are traffic, and retail fraud and theft, Burke said. As home to one of the largest retail shopping landscapes in the state, South Burlington stores are constant targets for theft. Add the thousands of motor vehicles traveling through the city, and chances are, they will hit each other from time to time.

“We have constant traffic problems because of the sheer number of vehicles that move through the city,” Burke said. “We’re home to some of the largest retail centers, and they are targets for retail theft and fraud.”

The Opiate Crisis

Of course, crime is often linked to larger societal issues, and like so many areas of Vermont, South Burlington is in the throes of an opioid addiction crisis. Addicts often resort to theft in order to feed their habit, and Burke said that is an issue here.

“What we see here on the policing side is petty theft, home burglary, and fraud,” the chief said. “These are all symptomatic crimes to feed an addiction.”

Burke also said that he knows drug traffickers bringing heroin and other opiates into Chittenden County use the city’s hotels and motels to set up shop and sell their supply before heading back to New York City, or Springfield , Mass.

“It’s an ongoing issue we need to look at with our limited resources and figure out how we can help,” Burke said, drawing a distinct line between how he believes opiate addicts should be treated and how dealers should be dealt with.

“We need to be compassionate and understanding about opiate users,” he said. “But that is completely different from people who are selling drugs and profiting from exploiting the current crisis.”

South Burlington is home to the Howard Center’s Chittenden Clinic, where addicts in the rehabilitation treatment program work to get and stay drug-free. Burke said the number of people in treatment at the Chittenden Clinic has remained steady at just under 1,000 patients.

“That’s their capacity,” he said, “and it illustrates the scope of the opiate epidemic and what an amazing resource the Howard Center is.”

There are other tools the police use in dealing with the opiate crisis, and Burke credits the success of Vermont’s Hub and Spoke model to combat the issue at the local level. The Hubs are places like The Howard Center, the Chittenden Clinic, regional treatment and rehabilitation centers in larger towns and cities, where addicts can go to rehab and received methadone. There are currently nine Hubs in Vermont. The Spokes are the small-town doctors that become certified to prescribe and treat addicts with buprenorphine and naltrexone on a weekly basis, and the local counselors and support groups for addicts and families affected by the disease.

The Hub and Spoke concept was first introduced by Dr. John Brooklyn and the model was designed and operationalized by the State of Vermont through the Blueprint for Health, the Department of Vermont Health Access, and the Vermont Department of Health’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs. According to the Vermont Department of Health, there are currently more than 6,000 people participating in Vermont’s Hub and Spoke treatment system.

Burke said he is a firm believer in the system.

“Hub and Spoke has proven to be as effective as it can be,” he said. “It allows for early intervention, and gives us the ability to treat these folks with compassion when they want to get help.”

There is one area regarding the drug crisis where Burke would like to see some improvement: Calling the police when someone is overdosing.

“There is still something counterintuitive to someone calling the police to the scene of an overdose,” he said, adding that Vermont law grants immunity to drug users and witnesses in overdose situations, meaning they can’t be charged with a crime. All South Burlington Police also carry Narcan (Naloxone), which when administered can reverse the effects of an overdose and save a life.
“It’s very helpful to have the police at the scene of an overdose,” Burke said. “We can assist. I wish the stigma would just disappear. We are truly there to help and we have the equipment to do so.”

Burke was asked if he felt like the opiate crisis was improving.

“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “ The best metric is the number of fatal overdoses in the state, and that is still going up, so the work is still ahead.”

There was an all-time high 132 overdose deaths in Vermont in 2016, and 124 in 2017. But when classified as non-suicide overdoses, the Vermont Department of Health reported 75 in 2015,106 in 2016, and 107 in 2017.                         

Mental Illness

Mental illness is another contributing societal factor when it comes to police incidents and response. That was why South Burlington joined five other area municipalities in the Community Outreach Program. The program provides four mental health clinicians, known as community outreach specialists, to be embedded within the police departments of six participating communities, including South Burlington. Winooski, Colchester, Essex, Shelburne, and Williston comprise the remaining five. The program was designed as a separate but parallel program to the Howard Center’s successful Street Outreach Team initiative.

Early reports already point to the program’s success, not only for those suffering from mental illness, but for the officers involved.

“It’s a vital service in order to better serve our community members,” Burke said. “Like those with addiction issues, just because someone is in mental crisis or has a mental disorder, that doesn’t make them any less a part of our community. We can better respond to the person in crisis and it frees up our officers. The Howard Center is fully committed with all the services and able to take the time to help the individual get out of their current situation.”

Burke is also grateful for the program’s positive effect on the lives of his officers,

“From the perspective of a cop, you feel so much better about the resolution,” he said. “Rather than walking away thinking, ‘I’m going to get a call back here today.’”

Domestic Violence

In July, the South Burlington Police Department’s domestic violence policy was fully vetted and rewritten, Burke said, and every officer was trained on lethality. It’s just what it sounds like.

“If a victim answers ‘yes’ to three questions, then we call an advocate and connect them with the victim,” Burke said. “Lethality gauges whether a situation has escalated to a point where the victim’s life is in danger.”

Burke said reevaluating and updating the department’s domestic violence policy allowed the supervisor’s roles to be sharpened in response to incidents and train the sworn staff in their roles and responsibilities.

The issue is ongoing. In the last 12 months, there have been just over 100 reported domestic-related abuse incidents in South Burlington, resulting in 30 arrests, Burke said.

“I think domestic violence is as prevalent in this community as any other,” Burke said, “and the best prevention is education and awareness.”

Sure, teaching kids in the schools about respectful treatment of their family members is important, Burke said, but the issue in his mind is bigger than that.

“Society has to reconcile this,” the chief said. “And it’s happening, and I think it’s empowering the victims. How do you get to what a kid thinks is normal versus what should be normal? But as the police, our job is to take domestic violence very seriously and empower victims and survivors.”

Use of Force

Readers don’t have to look hard to find almost daily reports of officer-related shootings in the U.S., particularly as they relate to race issues. Burke said upholding the department’s use of force policy is high on his list of priorities. The policy is based on Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Law passed in 2014. It enforces unbiased policing in an effort to combat implicit bias and systemic racism but requiring law enforcement to clarify the circumstances in which members can consider race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender or other criteria when making law enforcement decisions.

Burke said the department recently did a complete evaluation and update of the use of force policy, and some of the associated training has begun jointly with the Burlington Police Department. The training focuses on de-escalation and containment tactics, using many of the tools available to an officer separate from their service firearm.

Those tools include, the mere presence of a uniformed officer at a scene, verbal tactics, control and restraint tactics, pepper spray, tasers, and police batons.

“Generally, what we see is control and restraint, or non-compliant escort techniques,” Burke said. “We don’t really even use our tasers much.”

Going Forward

Burke said he is focused on community outreach as well as officer wellness. He said the effects of cumulative stress on officers is real, a contributing factor to the high number of police suicides reported nationally each year.

“We have a counselor to keep up with officer wellness,” the chief said. “It’s not required of the officers, but our culture here at the South Burlington Police Department is really receptive to it and that culture is changing nationwide.”

Now five officers short with Whipple’s retirement, Burke said that puts added stress on the sworn staff and he is focusing heavily on recruitment, but it’s an issue.

“There are a lot of negative perceptions around policing that impair our ability to attract a wide array of candidates,” he said. “The beauty of SBPD is that we’re large enough to offer a variety of placements.”

For instance, there are opportunities for detective, canine, youth services, the drug task force, traffic safety, and formal leadership. So how about it, South Burlington residents?

“You can do a career here, and have it be a rewarding one,” Burke said. “I would love to see some South Burlingtonians apply to be police officers.”

So, what kind of boss is Burke, and how does he see the future of the South Burlington Police Department?

“I’m a tactile learner,” he said. “I like to think I lead by example, and I rely heavily on collaboration to reinforce that we’re going in the right direction, and we are.”


SOURCE: Lee Kahrs, The Other Paper