Jennifer Morrison being sworn in as interim Burlington police chief
Burlington city councilors on Monday voted unanimously to appoint Jennifer Morrison the police department's interim chief while the city searches for a new top cop.
The vote came after councilors questioned Morrison for more than an hour about use of force, social media use, implicit bias and how to rebuild community trust after months of department upheaval.
"It has to be all hands on deck to recognize right now that rebuilding and sustaining public trust is our No. 1 priority, and it always has been," Morrison said, adding, "This is a tough time, but it's not the worst time the BPD has ever gone through."
Burlington Deputy Chief Jan Wright was initially named acting chief but was removed from the post after admitting to making her own anonymous social media profile. Wright remains on paid administrative leave as the city continues an investigation into her "Lori Spicer" social media accounts.
A former Colchester Police Department chief, Morrison previously served as a Queen City cop for 23 years, retiring in Burlington in 2013 as the department's first female deputy chief. Mayor Miro Weinberger announced his recommendation to appoint Morrison at a press conference late last month.
Morrison said she will not apply for the permanent police chief job and expects to serve for up to six months while the city conducts a nationwide search. As interim chief, Morrison sees her role as being a "steadying hand" and a "bridge" to help the department prepare for the transition of a new chief, she said.
Morrison will be paid a prorated portion of del Pozo's annual salary, which was just more than $130,000, according to Weinberger.
Councilors and community members alike lauded Morrison at Monday's meeting. Longtime Burlington attorney Jerry O'Neill called her "as good as they get." O'Neill, who previously served as Burlington Police Commission chair for more than 15 years, said the council would do right to appoint Morrison.
"Burlington needs someone at this time with great skills," he said. "That person is Jen Morrison."
Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) called Morrison passionate and principled and commended her communication style. "People need a chief that's direct and clear and honest," Bushor said.
Morrison responded: "That's what you get if you confirm me."
Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) said that Morrison's decision to take the temporary gig shows she's committed to rebuilding trust.
"Everything you said tonight has shown me that you are the right person," Paulino said. "You know how hard it is, and you're still choosing to do it."
Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) also asked Morrison what steps she'd take to rebuild trust. Morrison said she doesn't have an agenda and plans to meet with her staff and police commission members early on. In general, Morrison said she believes that trust grows from accountability, such as when the chief disciplines officers or simply owns up to mistakes.
"My mantra is own it, fix it and move on," she said, later adding: "I don't play games, and I’m not a terribly political animal."
Morrison also discussed police body cameras, noting that she's in favor of the technology but that releasing the footage has to be carefully considered. She said use of force incidents must be scrutinized but declined to comment on previous violent altercations involving Burlington cops and would not say whether she thought the officers were disciplined properly.
"I do not own any of those decisions, so I will not take responsibility for them," Morrison said. "I believe that being transparent and open and communicating clearly with city leadership is the first step in rebuilding trust."
In a memo to councilors Monday, Weinberger summarized the search process for the permanent chief. Starting this month, the city will begin soliciting feedback from residents about desired "skills and qualities" for the new chief. The police commission will also host a community input session, the date of which has yet to be set.
The mayor will subsequently create a search committee composed of city councilors, police commissioners, members of the Burlington police union and community members to conduct first interviews and identify finalists.
Another group will vet the finalists; about 50 people were involved in that part of the process when del Pozo was hired in 2015, Weinberger said.
Later in the meeting, councilors heard an unsatisfying update on the long-stalled CityPlace Burlington project from consultant Jeff Glassberg, who reported that Brookfield Asset Management apparently has no plans for community engagement beyond what's required by city zoning.
Representatives from Brookfield told councilors in November that they'd propose a schedule of community meetings before the end of 2019, which never happened. "Despite weekly requests for an update on that, we’ve seen no progress in terms of engagement," Glassberg said.
Later Monday, after a closed session with city officials on the topic, Glassberg told reporters that he's become increasingly frustrated by Brookfield's noncommunication and refusal to host feedback sessions.
"It's in their own self interest," Glassberg said. "People want to come to these things to ask [questions]. Why wouldn't you want to do that?"
The update equally confounded councilors. "I do not get what they are doing," council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) said of Brookfield. "Really, they are baffling me.”
On the other hand, there are signs of progress, Glassberg said. Brookfield will meet with the city's technical review committee later this week, an initial step in permitting the redesigned mall.
The project is also slated for a February hearing before the Development Review Board, he said. The agenda for that meeting has not yet been posted.
Correction, January 7, 2020: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Tracy's question of Morrison. Additionally, the previous version mischaracterized how Morrison learned of the opening.