Burlington Police Commission Postpones Debate on Use-of-Force Policy | Off Message

Burlington Police Commission Postpones Debate on Use-of-Force Policy

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Outside the Burlington Police Department after a May 30 protest - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Outside the Burlington Police Department after a May 30 protest
After four hours of public comment during an emergency meeting Tuesday night, the Burlington Police Commission took no action but to delay its debate on a new use-of-force policy for the city police department.

The commission will reconvene at 6 p.m. on Wednesday via Zoom.

"I was ready to discuss this and dig into it, but it feels late, and it feels like everybody's going to be doing it tired," Commissioner Michele Asch said as the clock neared 10:30 p.m. "For me, I would like to be fresh in discussing it."

Only Commissioner Randall Harp voted against recessing the meeting. "I'm happy to keep plowing through this now," he said.



The city scheduled Tuesday's meeting last week on short notice in order to fast-track adoption of the new policy, which seeks to increase accountability and reduce police violence. 

But the proceedings were anything but fast. More than 100 people Zoomed in to the emergency session to demand that the city reallocate police funding to other social services — though the police commission does not have budgetary powers.
The high turnout during the public comment period was the continuation of an effort begun the night prior during a Board of Finance meeting. Over a nearly six-hour span Monday, some 250 people demanded the city reduce the police department budget. The Board of Finance, too, ultimately recessed its proceedings without taking any action and is also now scheduled to reconvene on Wednesday. 

Recessing allows boards to pause discussions and resume them at a later date without repeating public forum when the meeting reconvenes.

The draft use-of-force policy is based on recommendations from the city's Committee to Review Policing Practices, which the Burlington City Council formed last summer after incidents of alleged police brutality came to light. Harp and police commission chair Jabulani Gamache both served on the committee.
The council referred the policy to its Public Safety Committee, which subsequently stopped meeting during the coronavirus pandemic. Late last week, Mayor Miro Weinberger urged the commission to adopt the policy after the death of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody set off protests across the world.

The proposed Burlington policy says that officers have a duty to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force, which "will not be tolerated." Police must also deescalate situations as much as possible to avoid using force. The policy bans choke holds and shooting at or from moving vehicles except when citizens are in grave danger.

Some callers Tuesday night already had feedback on the draft. Grace Ahmed disagreed with a section that advises cops to use "objective reasonableness" in judging whether another officer used an appropriate amount of force.

Caller Casey O'Reilly agreed. "These words are, by design, empty and meaningless," she said. "There can be no objectivity in an institution founded upon and perpetuated by white supremacy."

Emmie Headrick said officers should be fired for using excessive force; the policy says they can be disciplined "up to and including termination."

"There should be no wiggle room or forgiveness for officers who deliberately put civilian lives at risk," she said. Headrick also suggested that the policy should specifically ban using pepper spray on visibly pregnant women and people known to have respiratory issues.

Deputy Chief Jon Murad said Tuesday night that the proposed directives are a huge improvement on the current policy.

"Is it everything that it could be? No," Murad said, adding that the state legislature is crafting model use-of-force policies that could change Burlington's. "I would suggest getting a better policy now and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."