Burlington Voters Will Decide Whether to Create a New Police Oversight Model | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Voters Will Decide Whether to Create a New Police Oversight Model

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Published February 7, 2023 at 6:35 p.m.
Updated February 28, 2023 at 6:41 p.m.


FILE: ROB DONNELLY
  • File: Rob Donnelly

On Monday, Burlington city councilors took the unusual step of asking voters to defeat an item that's on the Town Meeting Day ballot.

Led by the council's Democratic caucus, the body voted 6-5 to oppose a charter change that would create a new police oversight board. If the ballot item passed — and was then approved by the legislature and governor — the board's members would have the power to investigate misconduct and discipline officers, including the chief of police.

Mayor Miro Weinberger told councilors that it's "indefensible" to support the creation of a board that he said would strip away employee rights. Weinberger vetoed a similar measure that the council passed in 2020.

"Two years have passed, and there has been a reckoning with the public safety issues in this community," he said. "There is a majority of this council that no longer is willing to support this language."

The council's four Progressives, who have advocated for more police oversight, and independent Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) voted no on Monday.

Days before the council vote, Weinberger and more than a dozen community leaders gathered for a press conference where they urged voters to defeat the measure. The mayor's chief of staff formed a political action committee to fight the oversight proposal, and Dem-endorsed city council candidates are campaigning against it.

Public safety has been a hotly contested issue since the Burlington City Council voted in June 2020 to shrink the police force through attrition, and the debate has intensified in recent months. But city residents haven't had a chance to directly weigh in on the topic — until now. The ballot measure allows voters to decide a controversial matter by circumventing the council, which leans Democratic. 

That hasn't stopped city officials of all stripes from lobbying fiercely for their preferred outcome. While elected Democrats are uniformly opposed to the control board, they have only alluded to a vague alternative they promise to figure out after Town Meeting Day — "proof that unless the people push, then the status quo will not do anything," Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2) said.

But, he acknowledged, "this will be a hard victory, if we win this one."

The Progs' outlook was much rosier just three years ago. In 2020, the caucus controlled six of 12 council seats, and its members used their numbers to push their agenda, including the police staffing reductions.

But after officers left in droves, the Progs relented and agreed to hire more — and have since approved sizable recruitment bonuses for new cops. Two members of the party recently resigned from the council, leaving a power vacuum that Democrats and their allies have eagerly filled — including by recently flipping a seat formerly held by a Prog.

There are more signs that the public safety pendulum has swung in Democrats' favor. More than 1,000 people participated in the party's caucus in December, compared to about 120 for the Progs. And after March, only one Prog who supported the police cuts — Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) — will remain in elected office.

The Dems hope their newfound momentum will help sink the control board.

The proposal is nearly identical to one that a slim council majority passed in late 2020. Weinberger vetoed the measure, which was introduced in response to allegations that Burlington cops used excessive force against young Black men. 

Advocates say racial disparities in arrest and use-of-force data prove that police can't police themselves. On Monday, University of Vermont professor Trish O'Kane said during the meeting's public forum that department scandals — including former chiefs who behaved badly on social media and recent revelations about off-duty officers getting paid to patrol a private condo complex — are evidence that "our municipal security forces are not under civilian control."

There are plenty of people who feel similarly. Activists got about 1,770 signatures on a petition to land the police oversight item on this year's ballot. The measure would create an "independent community control board" of between seven and nine people. Instead of appointing the members directly, as they do for other boards and commissions, the mayor and city council would choose community organizations to nominate representatives to a selection committee; members of that committee would vet applicants to serve on the board. 

People with law enforcement experience would be barred from serving, but their family members could serve.

The board would receive complaints, hold disciplinary hearings and mete out punishment to officers found guilty of misconduct.

Proponents say the control board is designed to hear the most serious complaints — those for excessive force, abuse of authority, theft and other offenses, according to the proposal — though members could technically investigate any offense. The police chief could also discipline officers, but the board could overrule those decisions. The board would also hire the director of a new investigative office, whose staff could compel witnesses to testify during internal investigations, among other duties.

"What is on the table calls for accountability [and offers] ways of rebuilding trust with communities that have deep, historic — and rightfully so — distrust in policing systems," said Tyler Pastorok, a Burlington resident who helped organize the petition drive. 

Democratic leaders, however, "are choosing to receive it as an attack," he said.

Opponents contend that the control board would scare off new recruits as the department is trying to rebuild. Officers should be judged by their peers, not a panel "specifically designed and oriented against our members," the Burlington Police Officers' Association wrote in a recent Facebook post.

The control board would "devastate an already struggling Agency and Union," the post continues.

Union support for the proposal seems to be mixed. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1674, which represents more than 600 service providers at Howard Center, overwhelmingly voted in support of the measure at a recent board meeting. Meantime, Matthew MacNeil, an administrator at Howard Center, spoke out against it at the mayor's press conference.

Joining him was Damion Gilbert, president of AFSCME Local 1343, which represents more than 200 city employees. Gilbert said the control board wouldn't afford due process to officers accused of misconduct. The proposal says officers could be suspended without pay for up to two weeks with no notice and must appeal to the Vermont Superior Court instead of filing a grievance.

"We've had this disciplinary process for 30 years now, and it's worked," Gilbert said.

Proponents say officers disciplined by the chief can appeal those decisions the way they do now. Pastorok says officers should have nothing to fear if they're doing their jobs by the book.

James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said he's concerned about the "problematic narrative" that passing the control board would drive officers out of the city and make Burlington less safe. 

"Voters should not be asked to make a false choice between public safety and police accountability," Lyall said. "People can and should expect both."

Advocates have also charged that Weinberger and his allies are spreading misinformation about the proposal. For example, a press release from the mayor's office says board members wouldn't be required to live in Burlington when the ballot language is more nuanced: Only Burlington residents could serve, it says, but if they moved to another Chittenden County community, they could finish their term.

Weinberger has also said control board members couldn't be removed if they abused their power. Councilor Bergman, a former assistant city attorney who helped draft the ballot language, said the city charter already includes a provision that a two-thirds majority of the council can vote to remove any "city officer or department head" who is "no longer effectively serving the city." He argues that the language would apply to the control board.

Some people have compared the control board to the Police Civilian Oversight Board in Madison, Wis. Like in Burlington's proposed model, that group strives to be racially diverse and include people with different life and work experiences. The board works in tandem with an "independent monitor" who can subpoena the police department, much like the investigative office envisioned in Burlington.

But while the Madison board can investigate officers, members can only recommend discipline. They can conduct an annual review of the chief's performance but can't fire the top cop in their city.

Councilor Ben Traverse (D-Ward 5) called Burlington's control board "an untested, unprecedented experiment" much like the cop-cutting vote in 2020. He said Burlington can't afford to experiment with public safety again.

"Democrats see value in exploring more police oversight and accountability," he said, "but we actually want to take the time to look closer at those models in Madison, Wis., and in Chicago, Ill., to allow the public greater opportunity to weigh in on this incredibly important issue."

Bergman argues that Burlington could just be ahead of the curve. The Queen City's first go at the control board in 2020 was vetted by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the standard-bearer for oversight boards. One of the nonprofit's directors told Burlington organizers at the time that the control board was a strong model and that other communities were "trying to get this level of authority."

Weinberger offered another solution when he vetoed that proposal: giving more disciplinary authority to the city's existing, civilian-led police commission, which can currently just advise the chief. "We must keep working on this issue with purpose and urgency," the mayor said at the time.

But that work seems to have stalled. Weinberger has said the specter of the control board has kept the city from advancing an ordinance to bolster the commission's power.

"With this hanging out there, we weren't able to get anywhere with that conversation," he said. "Following Town Meeting Day, if this ballot item is rejected ... there will be a new ability for us to find consensus on what further changes are needed."

Burlington politicos have less than a month to sway voters. Jane Knodell, a former Progressive city council president who is supporting the mayor's new PAC, said the group will likely send mailers to "get the facts of this thing out there" and urge a "no" vote. She predicts that Progressive council candidates who support the control board will suffer at the polls.

Progressive leaders, meanwhile, point to the 1,770 people who signed the ballot petition as evidence of widespread community support for more oversight. But they also realize they're up against an invigorated group of Dems with money to spend.

"When they want something," Bergman said, "they know how to get it."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Balance of Power | Burlington voters will decide whether to create a new police oversight model"

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