Burlington Council Hears From Protesters, Passes Police Oversight Resolution | Off Message

Burlington Council Hears From Protesters, Passes Police Oversight Resolution

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Protesters in Burlington last week - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Protesters in Burlington last week
Burlington city councilors on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution that charts a path toward creating more oversight for the police department and expresses support for the protesters who have occupied Battery Park.

It stops short, however, of protecting the demonstrators from being ticketed or told to leave. The resolution also does not address the protesters' primary demand that the city fire three cops accused of using excessive force.

Sponsored by all five council Democrats, the resolution directs the body's Charter Change Committee "to review options for who makes and reviews police disciplinary decisions" and report back in October.



The measure also asks the citizen-led Police Commission to study ways the city could introduce stronger discipline for cops who use brutal or excessive force. That report is due by November 30.

"The resolution is forward thinking," Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), its lead sponsor, said. "There are action steps many of us have called for."

The council's special meeting on Tuesday was called to address rising tensions between city officials and protesters, who have vowed to camp out at Battery Park until the city removes Sgt. Jason Bellavance and officers Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow from the force.

The group has led nightly demonstrations since August 25, two days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Activists called in to Tuesday night's meeting by the dozens.
"This isn’t hyperbolic. This isn't us trying to latch on to some national movement. This is about right here in Burlington," Ashley Laporte said. "If we ... truly believe racism is a public health crisis in Burlington, the work will be hard. It will be costly. It will take us years to undo, and this moment is your first moment to do the work."

Late last week, as protesters staged a "die-in" in front of his home, Mayor Miro Weinberger warned participants in a letter that the city may begin ticketing people who don't vacate the park.

Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) on Tuesday proposed amending the resolution with a clause asking the city "to continue to refrain" from enforcing its no-camping ordinance and to allow the protesters to remain in the park.

The mayor's letter "created a lot of fear and uncertainty" among protesters, particularly Black, Indigenous and other people of color, Hanson said. "The idea of police coming in potentially is a huge threat."
Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said the protests have been peaceful.

"Today we're talking about three individual white people to be removed from positions where they abuse their power to inflict lasting harm onto our BIPOC community," she said of the officers. "That thought makes me nauseous, and I could not be more proud or more moved by what I'm seeing in that park."

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) cautioned that if Hanson's amendment passed, the city would have to extend the same courtesy to groups with unfavorable viewpoints. The proposal "just really opens a can of worms that I don't think we want to go down," she said.

Weinberger said his memo didn't signal an "immediate change in posture" toward the protesters and suggested the city would be "judicious" in its enforcement. He said he worries for the protesters' safety and noted that, as councilors debated, Burlington police responded to "some kind of violent incident" involving homeless people at the park.

"It is a reminder that these are not abstract [concerns], that these are real risks that should weigh on us," Weinberger said.
Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) rebutted that statement, saying she doesn't trust the police's narrative of what's happening at the park.

"I don't think that the protesters have given any indication of being anything other than peaceful and well organized, and to talk about this as a public safety concern" is unfounded, she said.

Hanson's amendment failed on a 6-6 tie vote.

Earlier in the meeting, councilors discussed the legal implications of firing the three officers. City Attorney Eileen Blackwood explained that the officers have already been disciplined and the union contract protects them from further discipline "unless new facts or circumstances become known." The city charter says only the police chief can hire and fire cops.

"I don't think the city can take further action against these officers without exposing the city to significant legal action and potentially substantial damages, as well as possible reinstatement of the officers or other kinds of injunctive remedies," Blackwood said.

Activists who called in to the meeting said those explanations are unacceptable.

"I am terrified of a backlash from the police union and from people in this community who we know do not stand with change and do not stand with preserving life," Sophie Cassel said. "And I know that we need to do this anyway."

Reached by phone on Tuesday evening, Corrow said he has no intention of leaving the Burlington Police Department. He would not speak about his use-of-force case, which is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit.

"I chose this job because I want to help people, and that's what I do every day, and that's really all I have to say," he said. "Some people feel that that's not the case. I would recommend that they actually speak to me instead of just screaming my name when they don't actually know anything about the incident."

Seven Days could not reach Bellavance or Campbell for comment.

Just before 11 p.m., councilors entered an executive session to discuss their legal options. In a highly unusual move that drew pushback from some councilors, a majority of members agreed to invite protesters into the closed session. The council exited two hours later but took no action.