Burlington Police Get Involved After Prank Callers Target City Councilor | Off Message

Burlington Police Get Involved After Prank Callers Target City Councilor


Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District)

Updated at 4:06 p.m.

Burlington Police have referred an unknown number of people to a restorative justice program for repeatedly calling City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) during a council meeting in December.

Burlington Police Lt. Justin Couture would not disclose how many people were referred to the program, nor would he share their names.

"There was an investigation," he said. "It's being referred to alternative justice, which makes it confidential."

Councilor Shannon, however, told Seven Days that multiple people were referred to the program, which can include moderated discussions between the victim and offenders. Shannon said she hopes the process is productive.

"I want something that makes us better. I want that for Burlington," Shannon said. "I don't think that Burlington is in a healthy place right now. I don't think the way to get change is the way we've been approaching it in the last eight months. This isn't the way to make progress. This is just sowing division."

On December 14, councilors were discussing a proposal to create a citizen control board to investigate police misconduct. The topic had generated dozens of calls during the meeting's public forum, including from police reform advocates who urged councilors to allow residents to vote on the proposal.

Shannon’s personal cellphone rang at around 10 p.m., shortly after she began voicing her concerns with the proposal.

“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” Shannon said, silencing the ringer.
Shannon pressed on, but the calls — all from blocked numbers — kept coming in, interrupting her each time she attempted to speak. The mishap elicited grins from several of Shannon’s colleagues, including City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2). At one point Shannon herself laughed as the calls kept coming. Her phone was on silent, but the calls were being routed through her computer.

Eventually, Shannon muted her computer microphone and consulted with her husband, who was watching the virtual meeting in another room. He told her that he suspected activists were trying to silence her opposition to the plan. Shannon condemned the behavior during the meeting.

“I think that if people think that interrupting in this way is an OK way to object to what I'm saying, I hope, President Tracy, you will address this,” she said. Her phone continued to ring in the background.

Tracy apologized and said he’d assumed Shannon’s phone was malfunctioning.

“That is not appropriate,” he said of the repeated calls. “Please don’t do that, folks. Please allow us to focus on our work.”
Police later told Shannon that callers rang her phone more than 200 times in less than 10 minutes, she said. She also received one “very offensive text” and a call from a number that was “masked” to appear as if it were coming from the mayor’s office, she said. Shannon picked up to hear a male voice pretending to be Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Shannon called the police the following day to ask if the behavior could be considered a crime.

“I wanted to know who did this,” she said. “It seems like there should be some consequences.”

Shannon said the police informed her this week that the case would be going to a diversion program. Couture said offenders who don't complete the alternative justice program could face criminal charges. He wouldn't say which statute would apply in the "phone bombing" case.

Shannon said she's receptive to having an open dialogue with those who called, but also thinks they should reckon with the harm they've caused. Their actions have "a chilling effect on public service," said Shannon, who is running for reelection on Town Meeting Day, which is on Tuesday, March 2.

"How do you get people to run when people are treated like this?" Shannon asked.

“It’s fair for people to disagree with me, and it’s fair to debate,” she added. “It is not fair to silence debate. It’s not fair to silence an opinion you don’t like. And it’s not fair to harass a public servant in that way.”

It’s not the first time Shannon has been targeted by people who disagree with her views. In October, about 100 activists staged a die-in in front of Shannon’s South End home to demand that she support another police discipline proposal.

One protest organizer told VTDigger.org that Shannon has had “too many things to say against” police reform policies, including a resolution last summer to reduce the police force through attrition. Shannon was one of three councilors to vote against the measure.
Since then, the department officer count has dwindled, putting the city’s proactive overnight police coverage at risk. Shannon said she’s considered whether the complaint was “unjustly taking limited police resources for my benefit,” as some people have suggested on social media.

“I can’t speak to that,” she said. “If there’s some evidence that something of higher importance should have been investigated and wasn’t, I would, of course, feel terrible.”

Watch the council meeting below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV.

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