After 25 years with the Burlington Police Department (recently as its chief), lifelong Burlingtonian Michael Schirling is head of BTV Ignite, which brings together key tech players and leverages Burlington’s 1 gigabit high-speed Internet for economic growth. While it seems like an unusual transition, Schirling was co-founder of the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children task force and designed a police records management system when he became frustrated with the off-the-shelf options.
VL: How did community policing change over the course of your career?
MS: [In the late ’80s,] we’d have pieces of the [patrol] car that would fall off during a shift. Our portable radios would die in the middle of an event. We had to buy our own bulletproof vest, paper and pens, Polaroid film to process crime scenes, fingerprinting kit. … We had to cohabitate in the locker room with pigeons. We used to lose detainees out the window because their handcuffs were just attached to paneling with a D-ring. They’d pull it out of the wall and jump out the window. It’s changed a lot.
VL: Did philosophy change?
MS: It’s always been service-oriented, and I think it is still in a state of transition. Transition takes essentially a generation. Federal and state policy and resources have dramatically impacted the way things are done.
VL: For the better or worse?
MS: Worse. We have under-resourced mental health across the entire continuum, and when there aren’t resources anywhere else, it falls to two organizations to fix: police departments and emergency departments. There is no other place where the buck stops, where you call and walk in the door, you aren’t met with no. We’re misusing the criminal justice system as a surrogate for a meaningful mental health system, and it’s causing bad outcomes.
VL: What’s one misconception about policing that you’d like to clear up?
MS: That the responsibility for community safety rests solely with the police. They play the primary role when major events unfold or there’s a traffic crash or someone is trying to break into your house. But day to day, the community being willing to call police about suspicious activity, keeping an eye on their neighbor’s house, being a part of the fabric of community health and safety, that’s the most important piece of the puzzle.
VL: How is BTV Ignite going to impact the average Burlingtonian?
MS: Two-thirds of the tech jobs aren’t in technology companies. They’re in coffee shops, print shops, convenience stores, schools and you name it. It’s the 21st-century version of plumbers and electricians. It’s retraining existing workers who want to pivot into some kind of technology. So there’s a place for everyone from kindergarten students to Ph.D. researchers, and the exciting thing is that you have the institutions and small businesses and students and educators all thinking about what’s next.
VL: How do we spread the message outside of Vermont that Vermont is tech-forward?
MS: We have to start telling the stories of all the things that are happening here. We need to make a conscious effort to rebrand Vermont as tech-friendly, as tech-centric, as a place where you can come and enjoy a great quality of life and work in the technology economy here or remotely to anywhere in the world.
VL: What kind of possibilities come from Burlington’s gigabit Internet?
MS: Jamming with a band over a network connection in four cities at the same time … or doing surgeries using machines. Imagine you needed a specialist who is in Denver, and the da Vinci machine (a robotic surgical tool) is here. You don’t need to fly to Denver to have the surgery. It’s limited only by the imagination of what could you do with that kind of bandwidth.