Burlington Council to Question Mayor, Police Chief About Death Investigation | Off Message

Burlington Council to Question Mayor, Police Chief About Death Investigation


Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Mayor Miro Weinberger - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Mayor Miro Weinberger
Burlington city councilors want answers about why city officials tried to influence the findings of an autopsy for a man who died after a confrontation with a police officer last month.

Mayor Miro Weinberger and Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo will appear before the council on Monday. The agenda item is listed as an “expected executive session,” but council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) said some discussion may be public.

Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) requested Weinberger and del Pozo provide a “detailed explanation” about why officials questioned and attempted to stifle chief medical examiner Steven Shapiro’s classification of Douglas Kilburn’s death as a homicide. Kilburn, 54, died March 14, three days after being punched by Officer Cory Campbell.

Del Pozo contacted Shapiro’s boss, Health Commissioner Mark Levine, and Weinberger reached out to Gov. Phil Scott’s office about the autopsy report before it became public, emails obtained by Seven Days show. Del Pozo told Levine that Shapiro hadn’t used the correct standard for ruling Kilburn’s manner of death and consulted with medical examiners in two other states to question Shapiro’s report.

“Can we have both Mayor and Chief of Police provide details of their unethical actions about this to the full council?” Dieng wrote in an email April 22 to Weinberger, del Pozo, the mayor’s chief of staff Jordan Redell, a city attorney, and fellow councilors Wright, Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) and Chip Mason (D-Ward 5).

Redell responded that afternoon, saying “we strongly disagree” it was unethical to “bring transparency” to Shapiro’s report. She said “reasonable people will see the same serious concerns” when the Vermont State Police finish their investigation.

“We believe that all levels of government should be open to explaining what they have done and why,” Redell wrote, adding that if Weinberger and del Pozo appear at the meeting, they cannot make “any public statements beyond what they have already stated” given the ongoing state police probe.

Soon after, Tracy chimed in on the email chain to support Dieng’s request. On Friday, Tracy told Seven Days that he hopes much of the discussion will be public. He said he wants to review both the department’s use-of-force policy and the body camera footage of Campbell’s interaction with Kilburn.

Emails obtained by Seven Days revealed that del Pozo shared the footage with Weinberger and two members of the mayor's staff on April 9, the day before the state released Kilburn's death certificate.

But the chief declined to provide it to Campbell, who filed a suit on Monday to view it. The officer wants to see the footage before talking to investigators.

Tracy said he has questions about why Weinberger and del Pozo “chose to take the course they did.”

“I want to give them a chance to explain their actions before fully coming to a conclusion,” Tracy said. “It’s one thing to question the finding [of an autopsy] after the fact … but to do so prior to its release raises a lot of questions.”

Friday afternoon, Dieng walked back his use of “unethical,” saying he’ll reserve full judgment until he hears directly from the mayor and police chief. Still, Dieng wants to hear from city attorneys on whether officials can or should be disciplined for intervening in an active investigation.

“No one is above the law,” Dieng said.

Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) said he isn’t sure what to make of the officials’ actions but that “the appearance, at this point, is rather disconcerting.”

“I haven’t had a chance to speak to [del Pozo], so this will be a chance to have that conversation,” Pine said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to have as open and candid a conversation as we can.”

Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) said constituents have contacted him about the issue, and he thinks they’re owed answers.

“Is this something that’s normal, or is it not? If it’s not normal, why was it done?” he asked. “Was it information gathering, or was it trying to push the needle? It’s a fair question to ask.”

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said she’s been out of town and hadn’t heard any specifics about the city attempting to influence the medical examiner’s process. Her main concern is whether everyone involved “followed the rules.”

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a police chief to … make sure the public has the correct information and that the health department is playing by their own rules,” Shannon said. “I don’t think questioning something is necessarily interfering. If there are gray areas, it’s fair to question it.”

Councilors Mason, Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), Jack Hanson (P-East District) and Perri Freeman (P-Central District) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) said he plans to recuse himself from discussions of the case since his job as a deputy Chittenden County state’s attorney creates a conflict of interest.

Monday’s meeting will begin 45 minutes early, at 6:15 p.m. instead of 7, to allow for the discussion, Wright said. He, too, said he won’t judge the situation until he has more information.

Wright added that on different days recently, he'd had both the mayor and del Pozo on his new WVMT radio show, “The Morning Drive with Marcus and Kurt,” during which he asked them about the investigation. Del Pozo specifically said “he does not agree with the characterization that he read” about his communications with state officials, Wright said.

Indeed, both del Pozo and Weinberger have maintained they acted properly.

But council members aren’t the only ones asking questions.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan contacted Weinberger to “express concerns” about the case. City emails show Donovan called the mayor the afternoon of April 10 — while the police chief held a press conference about Kilburn’s cause of death.

The emails don’t detail what was said. Donovan told Seven Days on Friday that while watching a Facebook Live broadcast of the press conference, he picked up the phone to call del Pozo’s boss. The attorney general declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing state police investigation.

Seven Days learned of the call after requesting public records regarding the Kilburn matter from the city on April 11 and 12.

The city provided the materials, including emails and text messages Thursday. Much of the material was redacted; the city cited various legal exemptions under the law, including attorney-client privilege. The information included some emails that Seven Days had previously obtained in a separate public records request sent to the state.

The call from Donovan, a Democrat, illustrates that within state government, questions about the investigation have been bipartisan. Seven Days has previously reported on questions raised by the administration of Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

But some city leaders did not seem concerned.

“We did a good job today of moderating what would have been a sensationalistic news cycle had we not worked aggressively to properly frame it,” del Pozo texted to the mayor’s chief of staff on the night of April 10.

When the investigation is complete, Donovan will decide whether charges against the officer are warranted.

Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.

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