Don’t CRIMINALS and others breaking the law .. wear MASKS ?


Burlington police commissioner disturbed by masks on officers

BURLINGTON — Police Commissioner Jerry O’Neil, a former federal prosecutor and longtime observer of law enforcement in the city, has recently noticed a trend he finds disturbing.

Police have started to wear balaclavas — masks that cover their faces — something he hasn’t seen in 40 years watching policing in Burlington, O’Neil said.

“The balaclavas have just come into Burlington. I’ve never seen them before here, and I find it incredibly disturbing, because I think they’re very upsetting to citizens,” O’Neil said during a Police Commission meeting Tuesday night.

Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said he opposes the wearing of balaclavas on principle but that they serve a legitimate purpose in a narrow range of circumstances. Currently, the only Burlington officers allowed to wear the masks are the six members of the narcotics unit and only when they’re making a drug arrest, he said. They must also be in uniform if they’re wearing a balaclava, del Pozo said.

Narcotics officers work with confidential informants and do plainclothes patrols, so when they’re in uniform and tactical gear making an arrest they don’t want people to see their faces. That’s because neighbors or others involved directly or indirectly in the drug trade may recognize them in the future, del Pozo said.

O’Neil responded that those same officers don’t wear balaclavas when they testify to put drug dealers behind bars. He also questioned why the department doesn’t send officers who aren’t part of the narcotics unit to make arrests.

Del Pozo said it’s a resource issue. Sending other officers to make drug arrests would mean pulling them away from their regular duties.

“I don’t like balaclavas. I’m alarmed by the way it looks. I think it sends the wrong message,” del Pozo said. But he argued that has to be balanced against the need of narcotics officers to be unrecognized.

The masks smack of police militarization, del Pozo said, a trend he believes is detrimental to building trust with residents. That’s why Burlington recently stopped participating in the U.S. Department of Defense military surplus program.

O’Neil said he still didn’t understand why the use of balaclavas appears to have increased recently. He suggested it might have to do with Drug Enforcement Administration agents’ “propensity” to conduct operations masked. He said the recent DEA-led raid where the target was shot and killed highlighted the issue for him.

There could be an element of what O’Neil described as “me-tooism,” where local police officers are emulating a practice of federal agents that is perceived to be cool.

“That has crossed my mind,” del Pozo acknowledged. As a department, Burlington police need to examine whether that’s the case.

Del Pozo said that when he arrived at the deadly DEA raid he saw more officers in one place wearing balaclavas than he’d ever seen in any one place, including his time in the Army.

Most were federal agents, but members of the Burlington narcotics unit were wearing them as well, del Pozo said. The first thing del Pozo said he did upon assuming command was order the masked officers off the street so they wouldn’t “terrorize citizens.”

“I can’t order the DEA to unmask, and there may be reasons not to, but I said, ‘At least just get them out of the public eye. It’s very alarming,’” he said.

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