Burlington police at the scene of the incident involving the Meli brothers
Burlington Police Department bodycam footage from two incidents appears to show cops knocking unconscious two black men suspected of starting fights downtown. Attorneys filed excessive force lawsuits Thursday against the officers involved.
Burlington police conducted internal investigations of both incidents using out-of-state experts, which resulted in suspension without pay for one of the arresting officers, Chief Brandon del Pozo said. His department also apprised the Chittenden County State's Attorney's office and the city police commission, he said.
According to the chief, Sgt. Jason Bellavance, a shift supervisor and veteran of the department, faced discipline for his "unnecessary or unreasonable" use of force while investigating a report of a fight at What Ales You, a bar at the corner of St. Paul Street and Main Street, just after midnight on September 9.
The officer’s bodycam footage, provided to Seven Days by the attorneys who filed suit against the department, shows Bellavance exit his patrol car and follow a bar employee up the Main Street sidewalk. The employee points the officer toward a man in a flannel shirt who is arguing with another bar employee in front of JP's Pub.
The man, then-24-year-old Jérémie Meli, a Congolese immigrant, can be heard saying “You guys started the fight,” to a bar employee who is tapping a finger into Meli’s chest.
A split-second later, Bellavance walks up and shoves Meli from the side. Meli falls toward the building and appears to hit his head against the wall. A thud is audible on the recording. Bellavance grabs Meli’s limp body by the shoulder and drags him away from the wall. Meli's eyes appear to roll around as he’s being moved.
Meli’s brother, Albin, immediately begins yelling at Bellavance.
“Sir, sir! Are you fucking kidding me?” he can be heard saying.
“Back up,” Bellavance orders the brother away.
“Sir, he’s nonresponsive. Are you fucking kidding me?” Albin says.
Jérémie regains consciousness as Bellavance tells him to “roll over.” Bellavance and two other officers then begin to handcuff Jérémie as he wriggles on his stomach. “Stop resisting,” another officer orders.
Albin can be heard yelling off camera: “That’s my brother! He didn’t do anything!”
One of the other officers asks Jérémie, “How’s your head?” while another, identified in the federal lawsuit as Vincent Ross, tells Jérémie he will “get fucking Tased” if he kicks the officer.
A few minutes later, as the officers pinning Jérémie wait for first responders, Albin can be seen pushing another officer, identified in the civil lawsuit as Cory Campbell, on the shoulder while saying, “I’m sorry to say this, but can you please tell them to stop.”
Campbell and several other officers immediately tackle him.
Campbell is named as a defendant, along with Bellavance, in the civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by attorney Evan Chadwick of the firm Chadwick and Spensley.
The Melis' lawsuit alleges Campbell and Bellavance violated the Melis’ constitutional protection from excessive police force.
The complaint states that Jérémie suffers lingering effects from a head injury and needs special accommodations as he pursues a medical degree. Albin required a cast for injuries to his thumb, according to the suit.
Charges against both brothers were dropped. Del Pozo said prosecutors dismissed their case against Jérémie because the alleged victim declined to cooperate when the case headed toward trial. The chief did not specify the length of Bellavance's suspension.
The second suit stems from an incident the night before the encounter with the Meli brothers.
Burlington officer Joseph Corrow came upon a group of people on the sidewalk of the same block of Main Street. Mabior Jok, 34, can be seen in Corrow’s bodycam video in the middle of a circle of people, opposite another man. Corrow would later report in a criminal affidavit that he saw Jok punch the other man.
The video shows Corrow walk directly towards Jok. Just as Jok turns toward the officer, Corrow extends both arms and pulls Jok to the ground. Jok lost consciousness, according to Corrow’s affidavit, and the video shows a small pool of blood forming on the pavement near Jok’s mouth.
Bystanders can be heard on the video uttering “Police brutality,” and “You didn’t have to do that, bro.” A woman walks over to the officer and asks if Jok is breathing.
“He’s fine,” Corrow replies.
Jok regains consciousness and sits up, handcuffed, with blood visible in his mouth. He tells Corrow that he “slammed” him, to which Corrow replies, “Yeah, I slammed you 'cause of what you were doing. Don’t raise your hands at me. It’s really simple.”
In a criminal affidavit supporting charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, Corrow stated that he was trying to grab Jok’s left arm to handcuff him when Jok “began backing up and raising his arms.”
“I was in fear that Jok was going to assault me,” Corrow wrote.
The civil lawsuit on behalf of Jok, filed by Chadwick’s partner, Robb Spensley, claims that Bellavance arrived and interviewed witnesses who said Jok hadn’t punched anyone.
Corrow reported in his affidavit that he knew Jok from previous interactions. Jok had 10 misdemeanor convictions and five felony charges at the time.
In April, the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Jok stemming from the encounter with Corrow. The state had sought to exclude the bodycam footage from trial for the disorderly conduct, contending that the crime had been completed before the video begins, and that footage of the arrest would be "extremely prejudicial" to a jury.
Del Pozo said prosecutors dropped the case against Jok because he had accrued more serious felony charges and that his time in jail awaiting trial for those cases would have fulfilled any penalty for disorderly conduct.
Corrow did not face discipline because the internal investigation found that he had intervened in a fight, del Pozo said. The review did find that Corrow should have informed dispatch of the violent incident and requested backup "to maximize the likelihood of a safe outcome for all involved."
"He was counseled in this regard, this expectation was reiterated to the police union, and it was briefed to trainers and at roll calls," del Pozo said.
Both civil suits name the city, del Pozo in his official capacity as police chief, and Bellavance as defendants.
Del Pozo planned to host a press conference Friday to discuss the latest allegations.
Earlier this week, while taking questions from Burlington city councilors over his handling of the Kilburn case, del Pozo said he was planning to revisit the department’s 2013 use-of-force policy. He told councilors that departmental training had outpaced its use-of-force policy. He alluded to circumstances in which officers' actions were not in accordance with current training — but were allowed under current policy.
Del Pozo directed Seven Days’ followup questions about the policy review to deputy chief Jon Murad, who was unable to cite specific deficiencies in the present policy or examples of where it had hindered the ability to discipline officers for inappropriate conduct.