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'Translating Empathy': Heather Simons Takes Over As First Woman To Lead The Vermont Police Academy

A brick column with a plaque reading vermont state police academy
Nina Keck
/
VPR
The Vermont Police Academy has a new executive director. Heather Simons comes on as the Vermont State Police and forces statewide face low recruitment. She is also the first woman to lead the academy.

Vermont law enforcement agencies from Burlington to Brattleboro, including the State Police, say that it's increasingly difficult to recruit new officers. And that is part of a puzzle that Heather Simons has been hired to solve. This month, Simons became executive director of the Vermont Police Academy, the first woman to serve in that role in Vermont.

Previously, Simons spent nearly three decades with the state's Department of Corrections. For the past nine years, she oversaw the Vermont Correctional Academy, which trained Vermont's corrections officers. Now, she will be tasked with shaping statewide standards for the only academy that trains law enforcement officers in Vermont.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Heather Simons, the new executive director of the Vermont Police Academy. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's get right into this question of recruitment first. How big a challenge is it to get new recruits into the system, and what are some ideas for solving the shortage?

Heather Simons: Recruitment is really about, what do people know about the profession, and how do we get them more interested? And how that connects to recruitment is experience.

"... How we expand that [recruitment] pool [to reflect greater diversity] has to do with modeling what we want to see."
Heather Simons, executive director, Vermont Police Academy

So, you hear about community members who might do ride-alongs, or when people get interested in cross training in their professions, they may visit an agency, or in corrections you could visit a facility or probation office. That's also part of recruitment, is being able to see the work.

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And are you concerned at all about who is being recruited? Would you like to see more diversity reflected in Vermont's police force statewide?

Well, that's certainly a priority for the Criminal Justice Council, being mission critical. It is pretty much an agenda item at every meeting. It is a discussion point for committees and subcommittees. And really, we know this is the Vermont that we want to have. And how we expand that pool has to do with modeling what we want to see. And that, I think, is what's going to expand and attract a more diverse workforce.

We should take a moment and explain to folks that it's kind of the other half of your job, so to speak, with the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, which has been expanded — as I understand it — now, from 12 to 24 members.

I'm wondering though, if you have any concerns about that expansion, sort of that 'too many cooks in the kitchen' kind of problem? Will it make things more complicated to get things done? Or are you expecting that the increase — almost the doubling — of this council is going to bring about the right outcomes for Vermont?

In terms of my experience, the commitment has been really pleasantly surprising in terms of how many additional hours these professionals and committee members are putting into this work. So, what I'm experiencing, just in the short time that I've been in this position, is an incredible amount of support and enthusiasm. And I think, really, when I break it down, it's hope.

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At the time that you and I are talking now, it's been more than a year since George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

heather-simons-vt-police-academy-executive-director-courtesty-20210713.jpg
Heather Simons, Courtesy
Heather Simons took over as head of the Vermont Police Academy in July 2021.

We know that bad police actors are not limited to Minnesota. We also know that there are lots and lots of good cops. But these incidents and allegations of excessive police force — they happen here in Vermont, too.

I'm wondering about some strategies you hope to turn to that could emphasize de-escalation instead of confrontation, if that is in fact one of your goals.

It is one of my goals, and it's certainly a goal of the Criminal Justice Council, and it's been a goal for the Vermont Police Academy staff all along.

That's where we find out that language is very important. What's going to be the most important for the recruit and for any seasoned professional is that they know what their job is. What needs to happen when someone or some people are in crisis? How do we measure behavior?

And then in the community end, from the public end, to build a little more confidence in us that in that moment, people are making critical decisions. And they are leaning on muscle memory and [the] amygdala and training points.

And though there are going to be mistakes that are made, it is very clear from within when something's just not policing.

I mentioned that you oversaw the Department of Corrections' training academy and they had a five-week academy program. The Police Academy has grown to be a 16-week residential program, and that's 16 weeks away from a recruit’s family, from other obligations.

How would you get somebody who, let's say, is a single parent or has a job that they need to do to take that 16 weeks away, [and] do this recruiting?

Is there any kind of stipend? Is there any kind of way to help them out financially? Because that's a long time to be away from family and I'm wondering if that hurts recruitment.

It's a lot to ask someone to be away from home for 16 weeks and depending on where you are in your life, it can also be really helpful. If you're moving to Vermont from another state to take a job, that’s 16 weeks that you're not paying rent, you know?

We serve three meals here, because it's very difficult to go off site when you have a really long day. It depends on where someone's at in their life.

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How we transfer content in creative ways becomes very important, not to mention building in more what we would call field training experience, or FTO, or field training officer — is on-the-job training. And that's a whole other opportunity for us in Vermont, and I know that the council's prioritizing us looking into that as well.

We do know from studies done at UVM that drivers who are Black and Latino in Vermont are more significantly likely to be stopped by police, searched or arrested than white drivers are. What can be done at the academy level to address racial biases like these?

It's a good question, and I want to lean into it, make myself a little bit vulnerable with regards to this topic, because I know it can be controversial.

"Translating empathy is going to be the most important part of what we do in law enforcement or anywhere."
Heather Simons, executive director, Vermont Police Academy

As the executive director, I don't think that I need to wait to interpret data to know that we are working with systemic bias and systemic racism across the country in a number of different areas. And we have an opportunity to put language on what's been happening. That can happen at the academy.

Translating empathy is going to be the most important part of what we do in law enforcement or anywhere. How can we share experiences that become teachable moments?

And we don't really need data to do that.

What way do I want to be treated? What does it look like when I'm treated with respect? We can do that. We can train that.

The process by which we respond to a call; the process by which we take a phone call; how we make eye contact, the rate, tone, pitch volume of the voice that we use.

You know, when someone's really struggling and in crisis, probably not a good idea to tell them to calm down, because I've been advised what my emotion is, and people don't want to be told what their emotion is.

Decision making is part of courageous leadership and courageous leadership doesn't have any rank, and that's where trainers are really critical to change, because they’re messaging this.

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