Burlington Police Commissioner Hughes Resigns in Frustration | Off Message

Burlington Police Commissioner Hughes Resigns in Frustration


A line of protesters on Pearl Street in downtown Burlington - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A line of protesters on Pearl Street in downtown Burlington
Updated at 3:51 p.m.

Racial justice activist Mark Hughes resigned from the Burlington Police Commission on Thursday, citing frustration that the citizen-led board is powerless and ineffective.

Hughes announced his resignation during a massive rally in front of City Hall. Protesters have been gathering since August 25, demanding that three Burlington police officers — Sgt. Jason Bellavance and officers Joseph Corrow and Cory Campbell — be removed from the force for using violence, particularly against young Black men.

Hughes says Mayor Miro Weinberger is ignoring the protests, which are led by the group The Black Perspective.

"The mayor has shown no political will or intestinal fortitude to act unilaterally on such [a] decision," Hughes wrote in a resignation letter he released on Thursday. "The flat out dismissal of their demands is hypocritical as we declare racism as a public health emergency."

Hughes was appointed to the police commission in June 2019, a month after two young Black men said in a lawsuit that  Bellavance and Corrow used excessive force against them the previous fall. At the time, the city was reckoning with the death of Douglas Kilburn, who died days after Campbell punched him during an altercation at the University of Vermont Medical Center. The state medical examiner classified Kilburn's death as a homicide.

Hughes joined the citizen-led body to "restore community trust to the department," he said at the time. Since then, Hughes has proven an influential voice in the fight for racial justice in Burlington following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.  As coordinator of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, he successfully led the push to cut the police force earlier this summer.
In his resignation letter, Hughes wrote that the commission is ineffective because the city attorney and police union undermine its ability "to provide adequate oversight."

Mark Hughes speaking at city hall - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Mark Hughes speaking at city hall
Hughes also wrote that the city’s handling of officer discipline must be considered in a broader context.

“I am concerned that [the protesters’] asks are not being considered in light of the 401-year-old problem of racism, the current racial reckoning of a nation or the commitment to change in the city of Burlington,” Hughes said.

During a press briefing on Wednesday, Weinberger said the city can't fire the officers because their cases have already been adjudicated. Richard Cassidy, an attorney for the Burlington police union, reiterated that sentiment in a statement issued earlier this week. Firing the officers would be "a gross violation" of the contract, he wrote.

"The City’s decision was to impose a low level of discipline, and the employees and the Union did not contest that discipline," Cassidy wrote. "No wrongdoing found. The cases are closed as a matter of law."

Hughes rejected that argument during his speech Thursday night, saying the city is "not taking action because they are unwilling to accept the cost of doing so."

He praised the crowd, which included numerous college students, for their activism and urged others to get involved. "Don't let all of the work rest on [the students'] shoulders alone," he said. "Show up and do your job, community."

Meanwhile, Progressive city councilors on Thursday called on their fellow councilors and the mayor to hold an emergency meeting with protest organizers to address their demands.
Marching to city hall - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Marching to city hall
"City leadership, from the Mayor’s office to the City Council, bears responsibility for not responding appropriately to these policing actions," the statement says. "The combination of the City's elected officials and the Police Department’s inadequate response to violence against members of our community and unprofessional behavior from the BPD proves the need for structural reform, community oversight, and real accountability."

The caucus has called for a charter change that would allow a public body to have the final say in officer discipline, a power that currently resides with the chief of police. Weinberger has indicated that he's open to the discussion.

Reached on Thursday night, Police Commission chair Jabulani Gamache said he didn't expect any other resignations from his fellow commissioners, the majority of whom are Black.

"With that said, I did not see this coming," he added.

Chelsea Edgar and Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.

Read Hughes' full letter below.