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Montpelier Police Chief Braces For Potential Extremist Violence, Calls For 'More Civil Discourse'

Chief Brian Peete, outside the Montpelier Police Department.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR file
Chief Brian Peete, outside the Montpelier Police Department in the summer of 2020. He says the city is consulting with state and federal agencies amid concerns for nationwide protests and potential violence ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration.

The insurrection and riots in Washington, DC last week may be just the beginning. Vermont law enforcement is aware of calls encouraging people to arm themselves and meet at state capitols across the United States, including Montpelier, on Sunday, Jan. 17. Officials are also aware of trends warning of, and encouraging, insurrection on Jan. 20, the day President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th U.S. president.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete about how Vermont's capitol is preparing. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, you know, given the potential for armed protests or demonstrations at state capitols around the country, what specific threats, if any, have the Montpelier Police Department received? Are they specific to Montpelier, or part of broader threats from calls to action in all the states?

As of right now, we don't have anything that's any specific threat directed at Montpelier or within Vermont. However, we are aware of the national trends. So we have been working with the Vermont State Police, the Vermont Intelligence Center, the state's attorney's office in Washington County, the Capitol Police especially, and ensuring the safety and security of not only just the Capitol complex, but the city of Montpelier itself.

Chief Peete, you watched with the entire country as the events happened last Wednesday in Washington. I'm sure it was quite shocking for you, as it was for all of us. But what did you take away from that? Things that maybe the general public may have missed?

I think that the general public is extremely smart and sharp itself. So there['s] a lot of information, lessons learned, coming out through, I think, good critical feedback as to what happened, and a lot of questions that still need to be answered.

To me, the most important thing is just the level of rhetoric and emotion that we've been pouring into these conversations have pulled us further apart from one another. I think that we need to focus on coming back to a lot more civil discourse between ourselves.

Vermont is an open carry state. So I'm wondering how you strike a balance between the right of Vermonters in an open carry state to protest while carrying a weapon, but also ensuring that others are free to protest or speak against those armed individuals.

That's tricky, in the essence that, because of heightened awareness of what's going on and what has happened and what some of the calls are that we're seeing online. So ultimately, you know, I'll echo the sentiments that [Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling] said, that we need to look at the timing of everything that's going on, because that brings an added level of of urgency to what's going on.

So, if folks are carrying arms, that's their right. But when those weapons become, if they become unsheathed, and they're pointed at any other individuals, that changes the spectrum of what we have to deal with. It gives us minimal time to respond to something that's potentially dangerous. So that's our biggest concern. We want people to to express their rights, but we also urge incredible responsibility in doing that.

More from VPR: Vermont Police Girding Up For Armed Protests In Runup To Biden Inauguration

That's a really interesting point that you made. If you see someone, I guess you used the word "unsheathe," their firearm. I mean, that would be an indication there's potential violence there to use it. But I'm wondering, you know, where does free speech with a visible firearm cross the line into intimidation?

If there is somebody who is armed, maybe they have not unsheathed that weapon, but if they seem to be intimidating a person who is unarmed, is that a judgment call? I mean, and how does that situation of potential violence get talked down?

It's just based on, I think, Vermont's good standing of de-escalation in volatile situations that law enforcement officers have been trained very well and thoroughly by the Vermont Academy. And just the culture of the state itself. There are a lot of "what-if" scenarios of "what could possibly go wrong" in those different types of situations.

But as we continue our planning and we consult with the Washington County state's attorney's office, Rory Thibault, we make sure that we understand the current laws that are on the books and apply those to our operational plan.

Chief Peete, there is an undeniable racial component to everything that unfolded at the Capitol last week. I'm sure you've heard a lot of the commentary criticizing [U.S.] Capitol Police for, let's say, a very different response to those rioters, compared to the summer protests for Black Lives Matter, for example.

And you and I spoke back when you became Vermont's first Black chief of police. You came to this job this summer amid a nationwide reckoning with the violence against Black and Brown Americans at the hands of police. And I'm just wondering, how does that influence your approach to what's expected, or what may be coming, in the coming days?

Well, unqiue to Vermont again,  I think that the culture of the Vermont police, of law enforcement in Vermont, is 21st-century based. So while every institution has improvements and challenges it has to meet, I think that the Vermont law enforcement culture is leaps and bounds over of a lot of places that I've been to, a lot of places that I've seen.

With what happened in Washington, I'm definitely looking forward to a hot wash and seeing what is the result rather than relying on speculation or what some folks may be saying. But I think that, you know, we again do have a ways to go as a society, and looking at what has happened and differences between protests over the summer and here now, there have been behavior that's been unacceptable throughout. Again, which is why I would hope that we would all turn down the rhetoric.

But it kind of highlights something else. As we're seeing things like former military members in the Capitol Hill, incidents of where officers are promoting or supporting or encouraging that type of behavior, it certainly identifies the reason which Blacks and people of color are skeptical and nervous about our institution as a whole on the national level. Because it lends credence to the arguments, not as a police, a chief of police, but as a Black person, it's what's been going on within communities for a long time.

You've been an officer with the Chicago police. You've done work in New Mexico. That's within a town of just about 30,000 or so people. So I'm wondering on a smaller scale than those cities, you know, we've got here Vermont. Do you have to to fight against a kind of "it can't happen here" mentality? Is there a kind of complacency in that we think, "Oh, that kind of thing that we saw happen in Washington, that can't happen in Vermont?"

Yeah, it's a double-edged sword, in a myriad of ways. In some conversations, it depends on the convenience of the perspective. So a lot of folks will say, "Well, we'll see racism here or, you know, we'll see certain aspects of policing that Vermont's not immune to whatever's going on out in the situations." And counter-perspective, if you say something like, "Well, there's going to be something, or there's certain calls for this," there's another element that says, "Oh, that will never happen here in Vermont."

So I think the word that you used, complacency, is a very good word for this particular situation. So ultimately, any place, every place has its challenges. And we all need to be on guard for everything, and deal with it by striking the right tone in the right tenor, with how we move ahead in solving our challenges as a collective state.

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