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Middlebury police take stock of race relations

I’m not saying Middlebury police messed up, but I am saying that a willingness to be open to the idea that we could be committing harm even though we’re trying our best, that’s the key to any civil service.
— Rutland-area NAACP President Tabitha Moore

MIDDLEBURY — Brandon resident Bashiru Abdulaziz on Sept. 3 met up with the two Middlebury police officers who had ordered him to “raise your hands” during their investigation of a false report they’d received about an armed Black man detaining a woman at gunpoint off Mary Hogan Drive on June 22.
This was an opportunity for the officers and Abdulaziz to metaphorically shake hands and chart a new path for community policing.
As previously reported by the Independent, Abdulaziz was approached by Middlebury Police Officers Bill Austin and Jared Harrington and a police dog at the town recreation park at around 8:45 p.m. on June 22 after a 13-year-old witness had called authorities about a man with a “gun (who) was trying to put a female in a car at gunpoint.”
As it turned out, Abdulaziz had not been carrying a gun, but his cell phone, and the woman in question was a 61-year-old woman with special needs who was in his care. He had been escorting her around the park when the police officers showed a light in his face and ordered him to raise his hands.
Abdulaziz reported being in fear for his life, and had expressed concern that he’d not been given the benefit of the doubt because he’s Black. Abdulaziz was also unsettled by the fact that the teen had phoned in the complaint without grasping what was actually happening.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley has not forgotten the incident, and said he wants to use it as a springboard to better police procedures and community awareness of racial justice and equity.
In July Hanley connected with Rutland-area NAACP President Tabitha Moore through the Vermont Police Academy. They talked about the Abdulaziz incident, and how its aftermath might lead to both a healing process and greater community awareness about racial justice.
“(Hanley’s) willingness to have this conversation, to recognize that racial equity is a difficult thing, and that nobody has it mastered, he was on the right track,” Moore said in a phone interview. “It’s not ‘whether we messed up,’ it’s ‘how do we recover.’ I’m not saying Middlebury police messed up, but I am saying that a willingness to be open to the idea that we could be committing harm even though we’re trying our best, that’s the key to any civil service.”
Hanley noted that while Moore didn’t voice concerns about the way police responded, she raised the issue of this being a case where police were “weaponized.”
The term “weaponizing police” relates to cases where an individual, motivated by actual or subconscious bias, calls law enforcement to respond to a situation that did not ultimately require police mobilization. This is a phenomenon that locally affects not only people of color, but also college students, according to Hanley.
Moore and Hanley decided it would be beneficial to bring Abdulaziz, the two Middlebury officers, and other folks together for the Sept. 3 meeting at which all parties could discuss what Abdulaziz experienced, and how to learn from it.
The teen girl who called in the complaint and her parents elected not to attend the meeting, and Hanley said he understood the family’s decision.

THREE-HOUR MEETING
Lisa Ryan, member of the Rutland Board of Aldermen, agreed to facilitate the Sept. 3 meeting, which lasted around three hours.
“We talked about the case, what happened, what people’s perceptions were,” Hanley said. “It was a restorative situation for Bashiru — and the officers involved.  They all got to meet in a different environment.”
Everyone walked through the case, offering their own sentiments.
It became clear during the course of the meeting, according to Hanley, that the incident in the park “had an adverse effect on everyone involved.”
Abdulaziz felt his life was in danger and that he had been singled out for heavy scrutiny because he’s Black.
The officers, faced with a complaint about an unknown man who was reported to be potentially armed and allegedly holding a woman against her will, instead learned that the “suspect” was a caregiver simply taking his special-needs client for a walk on a warm summer day.
“It’s got (the officers) questioning all kinds of stuff,” Hanley said. “They’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection following up on this.
“And from (Abdulaziz’s) perspective, everyone understood his angst,” he added.
Hanley found Abdulaziz’s and the officers’ testimonials informative and instructive. And he said he now wants to use that information to help his department, and the greater community, move forward in the area of racial equity, justice and law enforcement.
“How can we work together to try to make sure these things don’t happen?” Hanley said.
Those present at the Sept. 3 meeting came to consensus on several paths forward, according to Hanley. Those paths include:
•  Educating the community about weaponizing police, and how to prevent such occurrences.
•  Informing the residents about current police procedures, and accepting feedback on how to potentially modify those procedures.
•  Raising awareness about the relationship between caregivers and their clients. As Abdulaziz’s case showed, the assistance he gave to his disabled client was misconstrued as an act of aggression.
•  Trying to view people and their behavior through a more worldly lens that acknowledges different customs.
“The point is, our mere presence in engaging someone, who has done nothing wrong — especially a person of color who’s not from Middlebury, is originally from Ghana — and the harm that can cause,” Hanley said. “We need to get that perspective through that person’s eyes.”
•  Stressing that people accurately report, to the best of their ability, the circumstances of an incident before deploying police.
“Exaggerating doesn’t make you a hero,” the group concluded.

DRASTIC ACTION NEEDED
Contacted by phone, Abdulaziz said he was satisfied by the meeting, though noted “there are certain things can’t be changed if we don’t take drastic measures. They have no answer for people making a false statement. If someone reports a case, and they lie, what are the consequences?
“I think they want to do the right thing.”
In studying Abdulaziz’s case, Moore spoke with people ranging from Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to Abdulaziz’s employers. She credited Ryan for being a great facilitator at the meeting, which gave Abdulaziz a chance to speak his heart and mind.
“We prefer a more restorative approach to things, because that means the person harmed actually gets some healing and attention,” she said.
Moore is glad to hear the town of Middlebury is planning a forum on racial justice. Its success, she said, will depend on its structure and focus.
“It’s got to be carefully structured and can’t be a one-shot forum. It’s got to be a kickoff, a rededication and commitment to community safety and public safety,” she said.
The upcoming Middlebury forum will be organized with input from community members, as well as representatives from Invest. Divest. Educate. Abolish. Liberate (IDEAL) Middlebury. The group is developing an educational presentation on racism the selectboard will discuss at its first meeting in October.
Janae Due is a member of IDEAL Middlebury.
“It’s a good first step for the town to do so,” she said, through an email, of the planned forum. “I don’t think that it can be the end-all be-all. There are many people in this town, and members on the selectboard, that feel like racism and anti-racism are very surface-level ideologies that can be fixed quickly and understood simply, but that’s not how this works. Effectiveness of the forum is wholly dependent on who is presenting this information, how the information is being presented, how often conversations like these are held, and if the selectboard and other town members are willing to engage with this information on a deeper level without defensiveness and with the real dedication to make substantial change, centering (on) Black, poor, and disabled community members.”
She cautioned that major work lies ahead if the community wants to truly bring about change. The Sept. 3 meeting with Abdulaziz was a precursor to the forum.
“I am hopeful to see that police officers were engaging in this conversation to get at least a slight grasp at the harm that they cause to individuals and communities of color,” she said. “But talking about ineffective policies to engage with does not help. In fact, when you are talking about anti-bias trainings and reformist policies for the police, it often requires additional funds, which goes against the exact goal of defunding the police. 
“There’s a power dynamic and a power structure here in which the police think if they go about making some changes to make sure that they don’t kill and harass Black and brown people, common civilians should be content with that. But that is not good enough. It is masking the real inherent problem with the police, which is the system itself, and having a few anti-bias trainings and policies isn’t going to change the system.”
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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