A bipartisan committee of Burlington city councilors on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution that would give the city's civilian police commission more oversight powers.
If approved by the full council, police commissioners would "have full and unfettered access" to complaints against police and the ability to hire an investigator to review allegations of misconduct, among other powers — a clear departure from the commission's current advisory role.
City Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), who chairs the three-member Public Safety Committee, said councilors have worked for months on increasing citizen oversight of police — something activists have demanded since spring 2019, when instances of alleged excessive force by Burlington officers came to light.
Council Progressives had attempted to create a separate oversight body, a "community control board," but Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed it late last year. That proposal would have required changing the city's charter, whereas the committee's resolution calls for updating a city ordinance.
"This is something that we do have the ability to do and move forward with now," Paul said. "What we've heard time and again from the public is that we want to get going."
The Public Safety Committee's proposal comes as the city is digesting a comprehensive operational assessment of the Burlington Police Department, which city officials ordered up following last summer's protests. Completed by third-party consultant CNA, the report says oversight structures are lacking in Burlington, and calls for the police commission's authority to be better defined.
The committee's proposal attempts to do just that. Commissioners already review complaints against officers, but the resolution would allow them to determine whether the complaints involve a low-, medium- or high-level infraction. The department would be required to turn over affidavits, witness statements, videos and other investigative documents to commissioners within 15 days of complaints being filed.
The plan would also allow commissioners to hire their own independent legal counsel and investigator to help review complaints, and to initiate probes into misconduct. Commissioners could recommend disciplinary action — as they do now — but in a more formal way: The chief would have to consult with commissioners and write a memo if he or she disagrees with the commission's recommendation. Those disputes would be reviewed by Public Safety Committee members, the mayor and a potential future "independent third body," the resolution says.
Calls for increased oversight reached a fever pitch in summer 2020, when activists occupied Battery Park for a month to demand that officers accused of using force against residents face stronger punishment. One officer eventually took a $300,000 buyout and resigned, but two others were protected from further discipline by their union contract.
As the protests ramped up, racial justice advocate Mark Hughes resigned from the police commission, saying the group was powerless and ineffective because it can only suggest police discipline, not mete it out.
Progressives introduced the control board in response. The plan would have created an independent body to investigate officers for misconduct and punish them for wrongdoing — a power that rests solely with the police chief. Weinberger preferred to give the police commission more oversight ability.
Police commissioner Melo Grant, who attended Tuesday's meeting, welcomed the resolution and said her colleagues are eager to have a larger role in disciplinary matters. When Grant was first appointed, the police commission only heard summaries of allegations against officers, she said. Commissioners review every complaint now, but the department isn't completely transparent, Grant said.
"We are asking for information related to certain complaints. It has been very, very difficult," she said. "We've been denied access to certain information for various reasons. We've been denied access to body cam footage."
Grant said she expects Weinberger's administration and the Burlington Police Officers' Association to push back on the committee's proposal. Paul said acting Police Chief Jon Murad had attended one of the committee's meetings but didn't offer an opinion on the plan.
Seven Days asked Weinberger earlier this week about the resolution, but his spokesperson, Samantha Sheehan, said the mayor didn't want to comment on what was then a working draft. Sheehan instead pointed to Weinberger's previous proposal for the commission, which included several of the same provisions.
City Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8), who serves on the committee with fellow Prog Zoraya Hightower (Ward 1), said "now would be the time" for the administration to raise any concerns with the proposal.
The full council will review the resolution at its October 18 meeting. Councilors hope to have the new system in place by the beginning of next year.