By Michelle Fields, Standard Correspondent
Last week Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish traveled to the White House for a briefing on 21st Century Policing. What he discovered was that the Woodstock Police Force was already doing many of the things recommended by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“It is gratifying to know that you are on the right track,” Blish said.
The 96-page report of the task force says its mission is “to strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve— especially in light of recent events around the country that have underscored the need for and importance of lasting collaborative relationships between local police and the public.”
“I don’t think there has been a large review of policing since the 70s,” Blish says noting the need for the task force review. The task force initially conducted seven public listening sessions around the country in 2015 to gather input from community and faith leaders, law enforcement personnel, youth leaders and academics to gather the input needed to fuel their recommendations.
In order to improve those community relations, the White House has been inviting police chiefs from around the country to attend six-hour briefings about the report all summer. The discussions center around six primary pillars: building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, technology and social media, community policing and crime reduction, training and education, and officer wellness and safety.
Blish says the biggest aspect of establishing trust is transparency. One way they accomplish that in Woodstock is by maintaining a Facebook page with information and putting every incident on Twitter.
“If you do not have trust you do not have legitimate authority to get people to follow the law,” Blish says.
However, based on the briefing, Blish says he may add one more social media platform for the Woodstock police force – TUMBLR. “You can create a page and customize it,” Blish says of TUMBLR. “On Facebook if someone makes negative comments, there is not much you can do about it. On TUMBLR, it (those comments) go back to their (the writer’s) page.”
Another aspect of transparency emphasized at the briefing was the use of body cameras. “They say it can improve police practice,” Blish says noting that one challenge with these devices, even after purchase (the Woodstock police officers all wear them) is who pays for it?
“Data storage is expensive,” he says.
Blish learned at the briefing about a police data initiative that he is planning to take part in. He notes that police departments can enter data on a data.gov site in over 150 different data sets to keep track of everything from traffic stops to shootings. “It lays a foundation for problem solving in the community,” he said noting it gives the ability to look for trends in a new way.
Chief Blish emphasizes that his trip to the White House did not cost Woodstock residents anything. “I was actually there on behalf of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police.” He is currently the president of that organization.
Police chiefs from Colchester, Burlington, and Springfield, Vermont attended the same briefing and the Burlington chief gave a brief presentation about their online citizen complaint form. “They put it online because people may feel intimidated coming to the police station to complain,” Blish says. However, he notes this does not seem to be a problem in Woodstock. “Here they are pretty quick to tell me if they are not happy with something.”
Overall, Blish says he feels like it was a worthwhile trip. “Their recommendations were not concrete, it’s really kind of a best practices model.”
This article first appeared in the August 25, 2016 edition of the Vermont Standard.