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Police forum to provide insights on shootings

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Selectwoman Susan Shashok is one of millions of Americans who have been floored by recent disturbing headlines about citizens shooting police and police shooting unarmed citizens.
The locations of those incidents — “Baton Rouge, La.,” Dallas, Texas,” “Falcon Heights, Minn.,” and “North Miami, Fla.” — are far removed from the 802 area code, but Shashok wants to organize a community dialogue here in Addison County to help local residents process the events and foster better understanding between law enforcement officers and the people they serve.
“I believe that information and open conversations provide a counterbalance to violent confrontations,” Shashok said last week.
With that in mind, she’s putting together a public forum to be held in September, when most folks are done with summer vacations. Representatives from Addison County’s municipal and state police agencies will be invited to share their views on what might have contributed to the recent fatal shootings and how such incidents can be prevented in the Green Mountain State.
“My goals for the forum are communication and transparency, which always serve to strengthen our community,” Shashok said.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley agrees with Shashok, and plans to attend the forum.
“I’m not opposed to interacting with anybody,” Hanley said. “We’re an integral part of the community, always have been and will continue to be so.”
Hanley is pleased that around seven members of his department currently reside in Middlebury and thus have a direct stake in local affairs in addition to their police work. Having a vested interest in good community relations provides an additional incentive for officers, he noted.
“They are part of the fabric of the community,” he said.
While the recent shootings have not involved area officers, there is a sense of solidarity among the nation’s public safety officials. To some area residents, the Middlebury police might as well be wearing Baton Rouge badges.
“The outpouring of support, for us, has been all positive — sentiments relayed to us, both personally and as an organization, from people who are concerned,” Hanley said. “There have been expressions of concern for the health and welfare of our officers.”
A local woman entered the Middlebury police headquarters early last week with a big box of bagels and some well-wishes, in the aftermath of the slaying of the three Baton Rouge police officers on July 17.
“People have a legitimate concern here for the officers and their families,” he said.
Police departments, according to Hanley, have a responsibility to be selective about who they hire in order to minimize the chances of using lethal force during an investigation.
He acknowledged that some police department candidates aspire to the job for the wrong reasons.
“Some are into this ‘power and control’ thing,” he said. “If you’re the kind of guy that’s into the mirrored sunglasses and leather beat jackets, you need not apply. We weed that out in the screening process. We know that some people apply to this (vocation) because they get to carry weapons and have authority. It’s critical for us to make sure that we weed that out in the screening process.”
That last time Middlebury police used lethal force was in October 2012, when a 57-year-old man engaged officers in a firefight in woods off Route 116.
“The concern for emotional health and physical welfare of the officers following that was absolutely incredible,” Hanley said of the public’s response.
Other local police supervisors voiced their support for a police/public forum.
“Any time you can open up a dialogue between the public and law enforcement, that’s a good thing,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel. “It’s good to try to put people’s fears at ease and hear from their own police officers’ perspectives as to what they see and what they think. A lot people don’t know what we deal with. People assume that because this is Vermont, we don’t run into the same kinds of issues they run into in the cities.”
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs agreed.
“I would likely attend such a forum,” he said. “Any effort to build an understanding with the community is always good. Both for citizens and police. We saw great benefit in the public forum we held several years ago at the onset of our efforts to address the drug problem.”
Lt. Mike Manley, commander of the Vermont State Police barracks in New Haven, echoed the other local law enforcement leaders.
“I think it could be positive event as long a good moderator is in place to steer the conversation and not get off track,” he said. “I would attend if I am available on the date selected.”
The Independent will publish the date, time and location of the forum once details are finalized.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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