Perri Freeman (P-Central District) at Monday's council meeting
Burlington city councilors had mixed luck Monday night when it came to passing two resolutions intended to bring more accountability to the police department following recent allegations of excessive force, particularly against black men.
Three Progressives — Perri Freeman (Central District), Jack Hanson (East District) and Max Tracy (Ward 2) — introduced a resolution that essentially reiterated the demands made by Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington at a community meeting last month. The measure failed, 3-9, with only its sponsors voting in favor.
Another resolution — which created a special police oversight committee — passed 11-1.
The council took up the resolutions after the recent release of police body camera footage that shows Burlington officers knocking two young black men unconscious in separate incidents last fall. Another officer is under scrutiny following a violent encounter with a white man who died days later.
Some councilors upset about the incidents took aim at police leadership. Freeman and Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) voted on Monday against the reappointment of Chief Brandon del Pozo, who's held the post since 2015. Del Pozo and a slate of other city department heads needed council approval at the meeting to stay on the job. Only del Pozo's reappointment was contested, albeit unsuccessfully.
His department has been in the spotlight since the body cam videos were released in early May. Shortly after, Black Lives Matter asked the city to require all officers to wear body cameras, to fire officers accused of excessive force and to halt hiring cops in favor of adding social workers. The councilors’ resolution on Monday appended some specifics to the asks, such as requiring police to release footage of excessive force within 30 days, or seven days after an external investigation concludes.
“This resolution clearly outlines an expectation around brutal force and violence,” Freeman said. “We can do that for our community.”
Councilors debated the resolutions’ merits for more than 90 minutes. Many took issue with the concept of phasing out police, and during the public forum, two Burlington police-embedded social workers said they aren’t equipped to deal with the dangers officers face.
Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) worried that an unarmed social worker couldn’t defend a police officer during a violent confrontation.
“I wasn’t convinced that approach was the right approach for our community,” she said before voting no.
Councilors Franklin Paulino (D-North District), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) and Joan Shannon (D-South District) said the resolution would create issues with the Burlington Police Officers' Association.
Paulino, who called some clauses “anti-union,” said the BPOA could easily challenge the body cam requirement. Mason said he appreciates the desire for transparency but said disciplinary processes are private for a reason.
“We should not be in a position of publicly chastising public employees,” he said.
Shannon criticized phrasing that called for terminating officers who exercise force, saying not all force is equal and that it’s unrealistic to expect officers to be perfect all the time.
“If you put that heavy a penalty on saying, ‘This incident was not done the way we want it to be done,’ you lose an opportunity for officers to learn and to learn to do it better,” she said.
Shannon also disagreed that the department should freeze police officer hiring. Defending that aspect of the proposal, Councilor Tracy said the department wouldn’t shrink overnight. Rather, the resolution would set a staffing goal and would prioritize funding for mental health issues and resources to combat substance use disorder, matters that police aren’t equipped to handle, he said.
“Someone’s traumatic brain injury, someone’s death should not be a learning experience, plain and simple,” Tracy said, referring to the recent incidents involving officers. “We need to support this resolution to send a clear message.”
Hanson, the only councilor to attend the Black Lives Matter meeting last month, said he clearly heard the need to reassess policing in Burlington. “This is about responding to calls from our community,” he said.
Mayor Miro Weinberger slammed the proposal, calling it “highly problematic” and “redundant.” He noted that Chief del Pozo has disciplined officers when needed and has made strides in crafting a use-of-force policy. Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) said passing the resolution would “go backward.”
“We need police on the street,” he said. “The vast, vast majority of the men and women [on the police force] are out there trying to do good work, and I don't want them to feel demonized and demoralized.”
Councilors also squabbled over the second resolution’s wording but eventually approved it with only Councilor Dieng voting no.
Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) at Monday's meeting
The measure will create a committee to publicly review the Burlington police use-of-force policy, officer training, disciplinary practices, data collection and more. The proposal’s lead sponsor, Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8), said the resolution calls for engagement from a diverse group of stakeholders.
The committee will be comprised of two city councilors, mayoral appointees, police commissioners and people of color; plus a member of the LGBTQ community, a police supervisor, a police union representative, an activist, a community member “with a personal and professional background that would enrich the work of the committee,” and a mental health and domestic violence service provider.
Shannon, one of the resolution’s five cosponsors, said the committee’s formation is timely and exemplifies Burlington’s commitment to community policing.
Applications to join the committee are due June 24. The council’s Commission Selection Committee will offer a slate of candidates for full council approval by July 15, the resolution says.