The Burlington Police Commission approved a new use-of-force policy for the city police department Tuesday evening after months of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The seven-member citizen commission approved the policy 5-1, with Commissioner Yuol Herjok Yuol casting the "no" vote. Commissioner Mark Hughes voted "present" after airing concerns that the commission didn't have enough time to review the final draft.
Commissioner Randall Harp said the policy is much stronger than the previous version but noted that the directive alone can't hold officers accountable for using excessive force.
"Policies are important to have as a necessary condition for getting officer accountability and getting the kind of culture that you want out of a police force," Harp said before the vote. "In many respects, this is a very good policy."
The mayor said it was urgent that the commission adopt the policy in light of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed last month when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Activists have swarmed public meetings in the weeks since, demanding the city reduce police spending in favor of bolstering social services.
The police commission was no exception: Four hours of public forum at its June 9 meeting forced the panel to postpone its discussion until the following night. Members again delayed a vote on June 10 in order to allow city attorneys to review their proposed changes.
The policy passed with little discussion Tuesday night.
The new policy explicitly states that "excessive force will not be tolerated." It mentions the term "deescalate" 18 times, where the previous version did just once, according to acting Chief Jon Murad. (Interim Chief Jennifer Morrison is on leave until the fall.)
Much of the commission's debate last week focused on making the policy language stronger by replacing the noncommittal "should" with the more direct "must." One section that previously read, "officers shouldnot intentionally escalate situations unnecessarily," now says they "must not" do so. When choosing to use force, officers "will attempt to use de-escalation."
The directive also limits the scenarios in which police can use aerosol agents, such as pepper spray, on subjects. Previously, the draft policy said police "should avoid using" the spray "to overcome passive resistance," such as when a subject refuses to stand up to be placed in handcuffs. The policy explicitly bans that option now.
The previous policy, which was approved in 2013, allowed cops to use pepper spray as a means of crowd control "in special circumstances only as authorized by the Officer in Charge." That, too, is now banned in the new policy. Police can use pepper spray for riot control, however, with supervisor approval.
The policy also contains a "duty to intervene" clause, which mandates that cops try to stop a fellow officer from using "force that is clearly not objectively reasonable." Officers who fail to intervene could face termination, the policy says.
Officers who use lethal force must undergo an internal investigation. The new policy now requires that the police commission be notified of the probe's outcome.