An ad hoc committee charged with crafting Burlington’s sanctuary city proposal adjourned its meeting Tuesday amidst shouts as spectators accused city councilors of an exclusive process that’s lacking in transparency.
“I may seem disruptive ... but it feels like once again you are oppressing your community and not allowing us to have a voice in the process,” argued Mark Hughes, cofounder of the racial justice organization Justice For All, from the seats of Burlington City Hall Auditorium.
City Council President Jane Knodell struggled to quiet the crowd of about 20 as audience members raised their voices to argue that the new policy proposal hadn’t included enough input from stakeholders and the public.
“This is the just the beginning of the process,” Knodell responded to Hughes as the crowd yelled out dissent. “We can have a whole meeting of public forum on this topic.”
Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and City Attorney Eileen Blackwood presented a policy draft based on the state-mandated “fair and impartial policing policy.” The standard seeks to “clarify the circumstances in which officers can consider personal characteristics when making law enforcement decisions ... and provide services and enforce laws in an equitable and impartial way,” the draft policy states. The Burlington police department has used nearly identical guidelines since 2006, according to Blackwood, but now seeks to update and formalize the rules as part of the city’s sanctuary city process.
The three-member ad hoc committee — which includes councilors Knodell, Dave Hartnett and Joan Shannon — has been tasked with creating a “welcoming city” resolution. The policy would create a unified city guideline for municipal workers who interact with undocumented immigrants.
Central to the discussion is how Burlington will walk the line between granting protections to undocumented immigrants without overtly contradicting federal immigration policy. Officers would not arrest individuals simply for being undocumented, del Pozo told the committee, nor would police necessarily hold an individual in custody at the behest of federal immigration agents. But, the document notes, “the policy is not intended to prohibit or restrict any Department employee from sending to or receiving from any federal immigration official information” about an individual’s immigration status.
Still, the nuances of the policy aren’t entirely clear. “We’re bringing in full relief how the city will or won’t run in contrast with the federal law,” del Pozo said.
American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont staff attorney Jay Diaz criticized the policy because of its lack of victim and witness protections, and ambiguity in the wording of the city’s relationship with the federal government.
“Burlington thinks it can be a welcoming city, it calls itself a welcoming city, but if it doesn’t do much more than what has been proposed tonight, the city is kidding itself,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of work that can be done,” he added, noting that he hoped that the ACLU and other community organizations could participate as the police commission edits and refines the draft.
The meeting got out of hand when Knodell had to limit public comments to 15 minutes. Hughes and others shouted from their seats as council members tried to maintain calm.
“We really, really want to do this right,” Councilor Dave Hartnett said during a lapse in the hubbub. “We want to treat you with respect and we want respect back, and that didn’t happen tonight.”
“That didn’t happen because of white racism!” a woman yelled in response, before pulling on her coat and leaving the auditorium.
Del Pozo took the stand again to address the concerns. “I urge the ACLU, Migrant Justice, Justice For All, my police commissioners ... to weigh in in a democratic and a deliberative manner,” he said. “Let me know how you would like to proceed, so that I can police you democratically.”
The police commission is scheduled to review the policy draft later this month. The city council’s ad hoc committee would then take another look at the proposal and solicit input from other city departments on how they provide services to individuals without documentation. According to Knodell, the full council would likely vote on a resolution toward the end of February.