By a 6-6 vote on Monday, the Burlington City Council rejected Mayor Miro Weinberger's pick for the city's next police chief.
One of two finalists in the city’s monthslong search, acting Chief Jon Murad was unable to win over any of the six council Progressives, who painted him as unwilling to lead the city’s police reform efforts. The councilors also expressed concern about Murad’s reportedly strained relationships with some police commissioners.
“The willingness for engaging in meaningful police reform is what I have wanted to see,” Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said. “Character comes before credentials, no matter how many a person has.”
The result was no surprise: The six Progs announced their intention to vote against Murad just hours after Weinberger nominated him last week. Murad needed seven "yes" votes from the 12-member council.
Two other councilors — Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) and Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) — also signaled in interviews with Seven Dayslate last week that they wouldn’t vote for Murad. On Monday, however, both councilors reversed course and supported his nomination.
Weinberger called the council’s decision disappointing and “needlessly damaging to a department that has already been hurt badly.” In a statement following the vote, the mayor said he had asked Murad to serve as acting chief “indefinitely.”
“Chief Murad will be Burlington's Chief so long as he continues to serve as a full partner with the Administration and the Burlington community in forging progress on our urgent public safety challenges and advancing police transformation,” the mayor's statement said. “It is my sincere hope that at some point soon a majority of the Council joins us in this critical work.”
Weinberger may not have long to wait. The composition of the council could change after Town Meeting Day on March 1, when eight seats are up for election. Two incumbent Progs — City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) and Stromberg — are not running for reelection.
The city hasn’t had a permanent police chief since December 2019, when former chief Brandon del Pozo resigned amid a social media scandal. Named acting chief in June 2020, Murad has led the department during what Weinberger has called one of its most challenging times — starting with a council vote to reduce the police force by 30 percent through attrition.
Officers have left in droves since that June 2020 vote, shrinking what was once a department of 90 sworn officers to 65, a number Murad says he expects to drop even lower by this summer. Several speakers during the meeting’s lengthy public forum urged the council to appoint Murad to stem the officer exodus, a trend many say has made the city more dangerous.
Other supporters pointed to Murad’s credentials and 20-month stint as acting chief as reasons enough to give him the job. Like his predecessor del Pozo, Murad is a Harvard graduate and alumnus of the New York Police Department. He served as the right-hand man to former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, who remains a thought leader in policing circles.
Some of Murad’s detractors have said his relationship with Bratton counts against him. Bratton is one of the foremost proponents of “broken windows” policing, or the prosecution of low-level offenses that critics say leads to over-policing in poor communities of color.
But the primary debate centered on whether Murad is truly committed to reforms that the council has discussed for months. These include eliminating racial disparities in uses of force and traffic stops, and accepting additional citizen oversight of the department — concerns that were documented in an independent assessment of the department last fall.
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said that Murad has embraced the report's recommendation to hire more officers but has been less enthusiastic about the report's other findings. Murad has opposed reforms, Hanson said, and blamed councilors "for what he portrayed as a major uptick in violent crime, something that I think caused a lot of distress in our community."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont even got involved last summer, writing an open letter that accused both Murad and Weinberger of waging a “campaign of misinformation” by blaming gunfire incidents on the council’s police-cutting vote. The letter also questioned Murad's deployment of officers, and pointed to a Seven Days story that revealed the acting chief wasn’t consistently staffing downtown during the weekend overnight hours, even though that area had the highest call volume.
"We're all tired and exhausted of fighting on this issue around public safety. In order to move away from that fighting, we need a leader at our police department who will embrace the calls from our community to transform public safety," Hanson said. "And based on his leadership over the past few years, I do not believe that acting Chief Murad is that leader."
Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) also said she doesn’t think Murad is willing to change the status quo. The acting chief has consistently denied that racial bias exists at the department, she said, and he opposed proposals to remove the chief’s authority over police discipline.
During his speech as part of the nomination process, Murad said that he’s aware of Burlington’s racial disparities in uses of force but that the department “eliminated” disparities in traffic stops in 2021. If he learned of bias in police interactions, Murad said he would “take swift action” to address it.
Hightower, who often espouses the role of compromiser in council debates, said she worked with Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) over the weekend to reach an agreement with the mayor’s office, including that Murad agree to several “performance objectives.” But Hightower said she learned Monday morning that the deal was off.
“I don't know why. It would have been a compromise that ... would have discontinued this level of mistrust of each other,” she said. “Until we can meet each other halfway, we probably will never move forward together.”
Hightower also noted concerns about Murad’s relationship with members of the seven-member police commission, three of whom spoke against his nomination on Monday. Commissioners Stephanie Seguino, Melo Grant and Susan Comerford all said they’ve witnessed Murad become defensive and unprofessional in commission meetings and during executive sessions, particularly toward female commissioners.
“I have at times been stunned by his lack of empathy,” Grant said. “We need a new way forward.”
Fellow police commissioner Shireen Hart disagreed, saying Murad is open to critique and that he supports reform and police oversight. “He will not simply rubber stamp or say ‘yes’ to every proposal presented, which I respect,” she said. "Instead, I know that he will give thoughtful consideration to all ideas.”
Later in the meeting, Councilor Dieng asked Murad to respond to the allegations from police commissioners. The acting chief said he was concerned by their comments but that he was committed to “a respectful and collaborative relationship” with them.
Several councilors, including Dieng and Carpenter, had expressed concern about the chief hiring process, which became contentious when the search netted just two viable candidates — Murad and another unnamed applicant who eventually withdrew their candidacy.
Late last year, Weinberger made several demands of councilors that he said would broaden the applicant pool, including increasing the position’s pay. When councilors only agreed to hire a search firm, Weinberger instead decided to move forward with the two finalists.
Carpenter reiterated her concerns on Monday, saying that the city’s search committee should have had a larger role in the process, and that the public should have had more opportunities to meet with Murad before the confirmation vote.
But Carpenter also said she heard “loud and clear” that the community wants to give Murad a chance. During the meeting's public comment period, about 10 more people spoke in support of Murad than did against him.
Dieng didn’t address what prompted his about-face, nor did he respond to Seven Days’ interview request before the meeting. During the debate, he said appointing Murad would help a department rocked by turnover.
“Stability starts with having a permanent leader, and that leader, from my perspective, is right here in front of us,” Dieng said. “For the sake of building a community, we have to definitely come together on this one.”
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) echoed Dieng’s sentiment. “Without that stability,” she said, reform is “not going to get very far.”