Brandon del Pozo Ph.D., MPA, assistant professor of medicine and of health services, policy and practice, arrived as a faculty member at Brown in 2022 after a 23-year police career that he began patrolling the streets of East Flatbush in Brooklyn. After rising through the ranks in New York, del Pozo spent the last four years of his law enforcement career as chief of police of Burlington, Vermont. Along the way, he collected advanced degrees, including an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, an MA in Criminal Justice from John Jay College, and a doctorate in philosophy from the City University of New York. Author of the recent book, The Police and the State: Security, Social Cooperation, and the Public Good, del Pozo currently works at the intersection of public health, public safety and justice, focused on America’s epidemics of overdose and violence. He was recently appointed to the Council on Criminal Justice, a national non-partisan think tank that serves as an incubator for policy and leadership in the field.
We spoke to him about his career and its shift toward academia, and how U.S. police forces can begin moving in the direction of public health.
If we go back to the earliest part of your career, you graduated from Dartmouth College, a philosophy major, in the mid-nineties, and then decided to attend the NYPD’s police academy. Tell us about that career choice.
I grew up in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s and it was a genuinely dangerous place. I was robbed on the train more than once. A friend of mine was killed just playing pool after school, hit by a stray bullet. I felt like there was a hunger for safety, and that the police could contribute to it. The debate around what police do—or don’t do—wasn’t as acute as it is today.
I went to Dartmouth to get away from New York City. But crime was going down and people were appreciating policing. I thought I would join the police force for two or three years to give back to the city and to see things I would never otherwise see. I had studied moral philosophy so I said, “Let me see how morality plays out in these very tense situations where you’re taking away freedom or deciding what to do to another person that will profoundly affect them: arrest, not arrest, or some other fateful decision.”
It ended up being an amazing career. And then all of a sudden, 19 years goes by, and I’m leaving the NYPD for Burlington, Vermont.
You must have had many public health moments over the course of your career.
When I arrived in Burlington, Vermont the opioid crisis was rearing its head and there was a real desire for an innovative response. The mayor of Burlington said, “Go learn about addiction and overdose. You’re the new chief of police, help us with this crisis, but not with a police response. Go figure out how to turn our community toward addressing this problem.”
That was a big eye-opener for me. I started talking to researchers at Johns Hopkins and at Brown. I met Drs. Jody Rich, Traci Green, and their colleagues, and I learned about the very effective medications and treatments that can reduce overdose, promote recovery and save lives. They’re not overly complicated: it’s one or two medications. It’s providing access to those medications.