Burlington, VT – The police chief who declared that law enforcement officers are too quick to defend themselves against knife-wielding suspects has confessed to having set up a fake Twitter account to troll one of his critics.
Chief del Pozo created the @WinkleWatchers account while he was off duty on July 4 in order to mock Charles Winkleman, a Burlington resident known for criticizing city leaders, Seven Days reported.
He deleted his 10 tweets and closed the account within one hour of creating it, according to the VT Digger.
Winkleman immediately suspected that the police chief was behind the Twitter handle, which was created after Winkleman criticized a Burlington police lieutenant who wore a Thin Blue Lives Flag shirt to a civil rights monument in Alabama.
He shared his suspicions with Seven Days.
But when Seven Days asked Chief del Pozo about the social media account on July 23, he flatly denied having any “sock puppet accounts,” according to the news outlet.
“The answer’s categorically no,” he said at the time. “If I had anything to say, I would say it directly.”
Five days later, the chief showed up at Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s home to confess that he was the person behind the WinkleWatchers handle – a fact that both he and Weinberger later confirmed, Seven Days reported.
Chief del Pozo was placed on administrative leave during the ensuing internal investigation, which “very quickly…turned up a number of things” that were determined to be “linked to an underlying medical condition,” the mayor said.
None of the chief’s actions were illegal or “explicitly violated any City policy,” he added, according to the VTDigger.
As a result, the city handled the matter as a “verified medical situation,” Weinberger told Seven Days.
“Mental health challenges are serious issues among public safety personnel,” the mayor said. “We have a duty to be compassionate about them.”
Chief del Pozo was on medical leave for six weeks and received treatment before he returned to active duty on Sep. 15, Seven Days reported.
Seven Days again asked the police chief about the since-deleted fake Twitter account allegations after Winkleman recently resurrected his allegations on his website.
This time, Chief del Pozo admitted that he lied to the news outlet when he denied having created the WinkleWatchers account in July.
"I was disappointed in what I did,” he said. “It was a mistake, and I regret it, and I'm sorry.”
The chief said that the brain injury he suffered during a bike crash in June of 2018 was the reason why he created and used the fake account to troll Winkleman.
“It resulted in a lapse of judgment where I made a mistake that I regret,” he told Seven Days. “I responded to negativity with negativity in a way that doesn't become a chief of police.”
“I realized pretty quickly this was foolish and wrong, and I erased the tweets and deleted the account,” Chief del Pozo told the VT Digger. “Between the stress and some of the issues I was dealing with my health, it was a way to respond to negativity that wasn’t appropriate. It was wrong.”
Winkleman was shocked to learn that Chief del Pozo had confessed to having created and operated the bogus account.
“Holy s--t. Oh my god – wow,” he said, according to Seven Days. “I’m amazed they would even admit it.”
But he said he is still frustrated that the police chief hasn’t reached out to him.
“If you regretted it, why didn’t you apologize to me?” Winkleman said. “For me it comes down to: What’s going to change? What’s the accountability like?”
On Saturday, Winkleman declared that Weinberger and Chief del Pozo should resign their positions.
"I think the chief should resign. I think his deputies should resign,” he told WCAX. “I think that the mayor needs to resign too.”
“That is incredibly scary that we have a police chief and officers that will be protected by the council and mayor no matter what they do,” Winkleman complained to the VT Digger.
Chief del Pozo assured WCAX that he has no intention of bowing to Winkleman's demand that he resign his position.
Most of the Burlington City Council said they are backing Chief del Pozo because he self-reported his mistake, didn’t violate policy, and has taken action to address his mental health needs, the VT Digger reported.
“Balanced against everything else the chief has done in Burlington in a four- to five-year period, I’m not going to pile on the chief and try to destroy him over admittedly a very serious mistake,” City Councilor Kurt Wright said.
Chief del Pozo made headlines last month when he declared in a New York Times op-ed piece that law enforcement officers are too quick to defend themselves against knife-wielding suspects.
“We tell officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and that they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return,” the police chief wrote. “But doing so forecloses all of the better ways to communicate with a person in crisis. There are alternatives.”
He said that one of the biggest mistakes trainers have made has been to teach law enforcement officers “to lead with the gun.”
American law enforcement leaders should instead try to mimic techniques used in countries were officers are unarmed, such as Britain or Iceland, Chief del Pozo suggested.
Yelling commands at a knife-wielding attacker “is unlikely to make a difference,” especially when the officer is unarmed, he said.
But unarmed officers would instinctively back away from the attacker, which could then allow for the situation to de-escalate, the chief claimed.
“Unarmed officers will cultivate an instinct to de-escalate,” Chief del Pozo declared. “They will keep a safe distance, they will try to assess the true level of threat rather than see a weapon as a cue to rapidly escalate, and they will communicate in ways that reach people.”
“There is good psychological research on what type of communication stands the best chance of calming people in distress, regardless of what is in their hands,” he added. “And it is certainly not yelling at them or threatening their lives.”
Chief del Pozo suggested that law enforcement academies should “start by sending officers into scenarios where they have to solve problems without recourse to lethal force...before they ever handle a firearm.”
Duty weapons shouldn’t even be involved in law enforcement training until the final phase of an academy, he added.
“By the end of academy, the officers will have learned that yelling at a person as you threaten to shoot is a panicked, last-ditch effort, not a sign of competence,” Chief del Pozo opined.
“Training officers to act as if their weapons are insurance policies, rather than persuasive devices, will transform the nation’s police work,” the chief declared. “Every American will be made safer by police officers whose first instinct is to communicate with the people they encounter and whose success lies in getting the psychology of persuasion right.”
Chief del Pozo did not specifically address the impact such training would have on law enforcement officers’ safety, however.
The chief noted that he works in a “progressive” city, where at least one city councilperson has already suggested “that we should explore ways to disarm our city’s police because it would prevent them from killing people and force them to approach crises differently.”
Chief del Pozo said that such a concept is a “non-starter” in America, and acknowledged that it was unsafe for the community for police to be “rendered helpless” in the case of mass shootings or other firearms-related incidents.
“But if the police profession doesn’t want politicians broaching these ideas, we owe the public a commitment to doing everything we can to respect the sanctity of life,” he added. “We should fundamentally change the way police officers view their guns.”
Shortly after his op-ed was published, an LAPD officer was almost murdered while trying to flee from a a machete-wielding attacker. The incident was captured on video, and showed other officers shooting the suspect at the last possible moment.
A total of 42 law enforcement officers have been stabbed to death in the line of duty since 1990, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.