By Nataleigh Noble
Most high school seniors are only faced with the big decision of “What Comes After High School?” 16 year old Phin Brown, on the other hand, has some other choices to make. A little over a month after his encounter with two Secret Service agents that made the headlines, Brown has to decide whether to file a civil suit against the US government.
On March 25, 2019 at 5:40 pm, BHS senior Phin Brown said he walked out of his apartment to catch a ride with friends. Earlier, his mother’s boyfriend had pointed out a mysterious car that had been parked outside of the apartment for two hours. They exited the building together, and parted ways. As Phin headed towards his friends, an unfamiliar, unidentified white man pushed him against their car and frisked him down.
That night, Brown shared his story and what followed via Facebook livestream.
“I don’t even know where to start with this,” Brown told his viewers.
Restraining tears, Brown said that after the assailant identified himself as Secret Service, Brown called the Burlington Police Department (BPD) to help him. Four BPD officers responded to the scene.
BPD body cam footage released on March 29 shows the police interaction with the secret service agents. The agents account is similar to Browns. They said they were waiting outside of an apartment, conducting an investigation when a young man, later confirmed to be Brown, walked out around 5:40 pm. The Secret Service agents reported to the BPD that Brown went over to another car, and made a gesture and mouthed something at the agents. Unable to determine if he was dangerous, the agents got out of the car, told him they were with the police, and started to frisk him down.
“He made a signal to us, and I thought he was threatening violence,” the male agent said in the body cam footage released by the BPD. “So I went down and said, ‘Hey do you have any weapons? I’m with the police.”
There are two differences in the accounts of the event. One: the Secret Service said they identified themselves prior to frisking Brown. Brown said they did not. And two: the Secret Service said the frisking was not racial profiling. Brown said it was.
The Burlington Secret Service Field Office declined to comment.
The BPD responded to Brown’s 911 call on March 25, 2019 around 5:40 pm. On March 26, following Brown’s livestream, the BPD issued a press release, stating:
“The Burlington Police Department does not interfere with special agents of the federal government performing their official duties. It does not have the authority to investigate their conduct. We are also not in a position to render public opinions about their work, and officers did not witness the interaction between the Secret Service and the adolescent prior to officers’ arrival.”
The press release confirmed that the agents were conducting an investigation.
On March 27 2019, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told VTDigger that the BPD had done everything it legally could do when the officers responded to Brown’s call.
“He had a really tense encounter with the Secret Service, but it’s not the role of the Burlington police to adjudicate it,” del Pozo said in the article.
While Brown has known many of these police officers for years, he is disappointed with their response. Brown believes that the Secret Service agents acted illegally, and he had hoped the BPD could have done something to help him in that moment.
“When the Burlington Police Department showed up it felt like they immediately tried to shut me down, to silence me,” Brown told The Register.
Brown told the Register that BPD officers had dismissed the possibility that the secret service agents had racial profiled him.
Del Pozo acknowledged that there is still no conclusive evidence as to whether the Secret Service’s actions was racially motivated or not.
“We definitely want officers to understand the perspective of someone in Phin Brown’s shoes and to be compassionate and not be too quick to make pronouncements,” del Pozo said.
Interestingly, in the March 25 press release, the BPD offered details into the history between Brown and the department.
“Many of our officers have known this young man since he was a toddler,” said Brandon del Pozo, Chief of Police said in the press release. “He has no negative history with the police. He is growing up in an extremely challenging environment, and sympathetic officers have tried to help him when possible and to look out for his best interests.”
At first glance, Brown said he was satisfied with the statement, but after looking it over again, he said that he is less than thrilled with the details given about his life.
“When the chief released his statement, at first I thought it was good, because they were saying all these nice things about me,” Brown said. “And then I read it over again, and I was like why is that there? Why did he feel the need to mention my troubled past?”
Brown told the Register by mentioning “an extremely challenging environment” the BPD was “trying to force [him] to confine [him] to that box of being a criminal.”
“My entire life I’ve just built myself up to break this cycle that my family has started,” Brown said.
While Brown used to feel comforted when he saw an officer, he now says he feels scared. The experience has made him look at Burlington differently.
“There is a big mental toll that comes with this,” Brown said. “Now I look at them [police] and I see the badge and I just see the power they have over me.”
By the time of press, the Register was not able to speak with a BPD officer.
For Brown, who identifies as a person of color, there is no debate over whether race played a role in his encounter with the Secret Service He raised the question of why he was the one that was stopped, and not his mother’s boyfriend. Brown then answered his own question: his mother’s boyfriend is white.
“The fact that the officers told me it was not about race, they told me it was just a misunderstanding,” Brown said. “They told me ‘you were in the wrong place at the wrong time’. How am I in the wrong place at the wrong time coming out of my house?”
According to the body cam footage that the BPD released, the federal agents disagree.
“He’s trying to say he got frisked because he’s a minority,” the male agent said in the video. “I have no idea what race you are.”
The female agent shared a slightly different sentiment.
“He is not a person of color,” the female agent said.
This comment shocked Brown when he watched the body cam footage.
“It’s part of acknowledging the problem without acknowledging the problem,” Brown said. “Trying to make it seem like the situation that occurred wasn’t as important as it is.”
In addition to challenging Brown’s racial identity the female Secret Service agent questioned Brown’s rights because he is a minor.
“You’re 16 years old. You don’t have any rights until you’re 18,” the female agent had said a Burlington officer on the body cam footage.
Brown told the Register this mindset is dangerous.
“To think that these two agents have guns,” Brown said. “To think that they have so much power, and they have the mindset that children don’t have rights in this country until they’re 18, and that they get to dictate who’s a person of color.”
Brown graduates from BHS in June. He told the Register he intends to take a gap year and relocate to Atlanta, Georgia. However, Brown will not leave this experience behind. Brown intends to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Secret Service. This can be a long process.
“If people don’t believe me, they don’t believe me,” Brown said. “I know what happened. The Secret Service knows what happened.”