Cop and town official team up to humanize criminial justice system
MIDDLEBURY — Key members of Addison County’s law enforcement and judiciary systems will take center stage at a public forum in Middlebury on Monday, Oct. 17, to put a face on the local criminal justice system and help area residents gain more insights into some of the recent, fatal confrontations that have occurred between police and citizens in other states.
The event is called “Humanizing the Criminal Justice System: A Public Forum.” It is being organized by Middlebury Selectwoman Susan Shashok and the town’s school resource officer, Chris Mason. The forum will feature a four-person panel: Addison County Superior Court Judge Samuel Hoar; Middlebury police Chief Tom Hanley; Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster; and Jon Kidde, a restorative justice consultant in Vermont.
“I’m hoping this will dispel some myths,” Mason said of the forum, to begin at 7 p.m. at the Middlebury town offices at 77 Main St. “People have a lot of ideas about how the criminal justice system works, about what police, judges, state’s attorneys do. And most of that comes from television and social media. Some of it is distorted for entertainment purposes, and some of it is distorted for political purposes. Pretty much all of it has a pretty strong bias to it. Very little of it is rooted in our own community.”
It was Shashok who provided the impetus for the forum. Like many Americans, she has been shaken by recent TV footage showing fatal confrontations between police officers and citizens, many of them African American. While the incidents in question have occurred in places like Minnesota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and other spots distant from the Green Mountain State, Shashok reasoned a local forum could help Middlebury-area residents gain a better understanding of the national headlines and give them guidance on what should happen if they are ever stopped by police.
“I could see what was going on across the country, feeling frustrated, upset, and that I should be doing something — but I wasn’t sure what I should do,” Shashok said. “The main part was I didn’t understand the police side of things. I felt like I could reach a bunch of conclusions about how I felt, but I wasn’t sure how it fit into the context of what (police) do every day.”
So Shashok called Mason to get his insights and advice. Mason also hosts a popular Middlebury Community Television talk show titled, “Middlebury Five-O” that provides information on law enforcement issues, among other things.
“I asked him a bunch of questions about what he does,” Shashok said. For example, she wanted to know the protocols that police are expected to follow during a traffic stop, and what kind of compliance is expected from people who are being investigated.
“The more we talked about it, the better I felt,” Shashok said.
She thought others could benefit from the same information, and Shashok at first suggested that Mason make the “traffic stop” experience the subject of a Middlebury Five-O show. But she and Mason decided that a forum would better allow people to ask questions of the law enforcement community.
“It’s a pretty big topic and spans a lot of subjects,” Shashok said.
Both Mason and Shashok got a thumbs-up from their respective colleagues to organize the Oct. 17 forum, which will include a mock arrest and the opportunity for Q&A with folks who walk the beat, prosecute defendants and hand down sentences.
Some of Shashok’s own curiosity stemmed from a bad experience she had during a stop near Philadelphia around 30 years ago. She had been driving to a library for a late-night study session for her calculus final exam when police pulled her over. The police — who as it turned out were on high alert following a recent shooting in the neighborhood — directed some bright lights on Shashok and held her at gunpoint for awhile.
“It definitely scared the daylights out of me,” Shashok said.
Mason and his colleagues want area residents to know that Shashok’s experience with the law 30 years ago is not typical — particularly when it comes to Vermont.
“I think a lot of people are hearing about the way crime incidents are approached in other parts of the country — be it Louisiana, Texas or wherever it might be — and they are wondering ‘is this the way (law enforcement) is done in my community,’ and ‘is that what I would face as a citizen in this community?’” Mason said. “The answer is probably ‘no.’”
In addition to providing a clearinghouse of information, the forum will allow people to interact with court and police officials in a more casual atmosphere.
“I think people will feel more connected to (the system),” Mason said. “Rather than these (panelists) being very distant, aloof figures, they will seem more like human beings, which is the humanizing aspect.”
Hanley is looking forward to the forum, seeing it as a chance to further inform people that police don’t want an adversarial relationship with the public they serve.
“The people who staff the criminal justice system are part of the fabric of the community,” Hanley said. “They live here, they participate in community events, their families are here. I hope they can been seen as just that, rather than a nameless, faceless, untouchable foreign bureaucracy imposed on the public. As Sir Robert Peel said while forming the world’s first police department in 1824, ‘The police are the people and the people are the police. The police are simply those who are paid to perform the duties incumbent on every citizen.’ That statement is still relevant today and includes the entire criminal justice system.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].