The Burlington Police Commission's apparent attempt to ask three Queen City cops to resign was derailed Tuesday night when City Attorney Eileen Blackwood stopped the conversation before it even started.
Newly appointed commission chair Jabulani Gamache was scheduled to lead a discussion on a statement about Sgt. Jason Bellavance and officers Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow, all of whom have had violent interactions with members of the public. But when the agenda item came up, Gamache said he'd been warned not to proceed.
"I'm going to have Eileen Blackwood, I guess, explain why I cannot talk about this," he said.
Gamache never explicitly detailed the statement, but the commission's ensuing debate — and Blackwood's direct warning — made clear what it said.
"Moving to ask officers to resign could be construed as what in legal doctrine is known as constructive discharge," Blackwood said. "It is equivalent to firing somebody."
Commissioners have a role "in the employment of officers," Blackwood said, so they shouldn't make comments "that can be seen as negative or derogatory." And because officers can appeal the chief's disciplinary decisions to the commission, its members need to stay impartial, she said.
"By asking for their resignation, you are saying, 'We want you to end your employment,'" Blackwood said, "in a circumstance where the city can't end their employment. So you're putting pressure on them, and that's where you're getting into the issues."
Commissioner Mark Hughes balked, saying the police commission has no authority in disciplinary matters. He said the statement is about "the perception that the community has of the department and the department's ability to be trusted," not about discipline.
"Our power is very, very limited, but we ought to at least be able to make a public statement if we think that ... something or someone is harming the department's ability to effectively carry out its responsibilities," Hughes said, adding: "We've got a problem in the ranks, and we should have the ability to address it."
All three officers are being sued in federal court for violent interactions they had with people of color in the fall of 2018. Only Bellavance was suspended for violating department policy on excessive force. Campbell was later reprimanded for cursing during a separate incident in the spring of 2019, when he punched an older white man, Douglas Kilburn, who later died.
The officers have landed squarely in activists' crosshairs in recent weeks as the city reckons with police violence in Burlington and nationwide. The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, coordinated by Hughes and led by other people of color, has called for all three officers to be fired. Hundreds of allies have Zoomed in to recent Burlington public meetings to echo the demands. City officials have said the matter is closed.
"I did want to put the statement to vote but, seeing the very murky waters that might put us in, I'm willing to table this ... or discuss it in executive session," Gamache said.
The commissioners agreed to discuss the statement in executive session. Hughes asked if Gamache had made the statement public. When Gamache said he hadn't, Blackwood chimed in with a request: "I would encourage you not to," she said.