Chris Viens (Right) and Mark Frier at a Waterbury Selectboard session last year
The chair of the Waterbury Selectboard gave up his gavel last week following a fierce backlash against his comments suggesting police departments should be segregated.
Chris Viens, 60, stepped down as chair of the board but refused to resign from the body as 464 people who signed a petition had demanded.
Instead, the excavation contractor who has served on the board for nine years read haltingly from a prepared statement at the beginning of the live-streamed November 2 meeting.
With his wife, LeeAnne, looking over his shoulder, Viens did not address his comments about policing directly, but instead said he regretted they were perceived as racist.
“I’m sorry that you think the fact that my wife and I were raised in this area and taught by our families that you should treat everyone equally no matter who they are makes us racist and ignorant,” Viens said. He said he would not resign from the board because he had “overwhelming support” from people who urged him “don’t give up, don’t give in and don’t step down.”
Viens declined an interview request, saying his wife told him to let his prepared remarks speak for themselves.
Passions flared in Waterbury over the summer during debate about the installation of a “Waterbury Stands With Black Lives Matter” banner on public property outside the municipal offices. Someone spray painted “State Police — Support WLM as well” on a nearby piece of construction equipment in September, an apparent reference to “White Lives Matter.”
In October, Viens made the suggestion for “segregated police” during a candidate forum aired on WDEV. At the time he was running for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives, a race he would lose.
He said that instead of calling to defund the police, the state should hire more officers of color and dispatch them to incidents involving minorities.
In a subsequent interview with Seven Days, Viens said he was seeking a constructive solution to the charges of systemic racism in law enforcement that are driving the Black Lives Matter movement by eliminating conflicts between white police officers and citizens of color.
He suggested Black police officers might be “more in tune with the disparities and the challenges that Black people have” and therefore “may be able to defuse the problem easier.”
He later acknowledged the phrase "segregated" had been a poor choice of words, adding, "I’m not a professor of the English language."
Members of the Waterbury Anti-Racism Coalition circulated a petition demanding his resignation and calling his remarks “either uninformed or willfully ignorant of the needs of the diverse community in which he serves.”
Maroni Minter, a Gabon native and Waterbury resident since 2003, called Viens’ remarks “very unsuitable” and said the town deserves leaders with views not based on “stereotypes and bias.”
“Waterbury is a community committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice,” Minter said. “We need leaders in place who uphold and advance these values.”
Another resident, Dani Kehlmann, asked Viens to put pride aside and “listen to a group of people who have been oppressed for centuries.”
“Listen when people tell you that your words hurt them. It may not be your intention, but intention is not always the same thing as outcome,” she said.
Erin Hurley said she hoped Viens would apologize and recognize how “hurtful” and “dangerous” his remarks were.
“Those comments obviously blew up across the state because they really hit a spot with people who are trying to combat racism as really, deeply scary,” she said.
Viens did apologize in his remarks — for not being able to reply to all of his supporters.