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Burlington City Council Approves New Contract for Police Union


Published July 25, 2022 at 11:09 p.m.

  • File: Rob Donnelly
The Burlington City Council on Monday approved a new police union contract that officials say will rebuild the force while introducing additional accountability measures to the department.

The near-unanimous vote — with only Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) voting "no" — was a rare show of solidarity between Progressive and Democratic councilors who have sparred on matters of public safety since the Prog-led vote to cut police staffing through attrition two years ago. Councilor Ali House (P-Ward 8) was absent.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said he was initially concerned that a divided council wouldn't be able to agree on new contract terms.
"Fortunately, I believe everyone involved recognized that that would be extraordinarily damaging and problematic in the Burlington context right now," the mayor said, citing low staffing and "a greater level of  public safety challenge than in the last decade."

"It's a major step forward for the city," Weinberger said of the contract, "and I appreciate the partnership."

The police union, though, doesn't share the mayor's rosy outlook. Following the council vote, the Burlington Police Officers' Association issued a statement on Facebook reiterating its displeasure with the council's cop-cutting vote. Last week's decision to delay voting on the contract "sowed doubt amongst our members that the Council, led by the Progressive Caucus, actually supports this contract and our members," the union said.

"Your inaction and abject failure to take responsibility for this crisis has reverberated loudly," the statement continues.

The statement went on to say the effects of the council's decision-making "have crescendoed into" two recent homicides in Burlington, including a murder-suicide early Monday morning.
"These tragic incidents once again demonstrate why the public safety crisis you created must be your primary focus moving forward," the union said. "Now is the time for you to rectify your past mistakes and wholeheartedly support this contract and this body moving forward before it is simply too late."

The new agreement will give members a 20 percent base pay increase over the three-year contract, starting with a 12 percent raise in the current fiscal year, which began July 1. It also includes a pay boost if the department enters "emergency staffing" mode, defined as having fewer than 28 nonsupervisory officers available for patrol.

Weinberger said the contract works "hand-in-hand" with a rebuilding plan that councilors approved last month as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget. The $1 million allotment will pay for signing bonuses and other perks such as housing and childcare stipends, and aims to bring the department to 85 sworn officers, just two short of its authorized cap, over the next three years. The department currently has 62 officers on staff, with 53 available for duty.
The contract also improves police oversight, a topic debated at length after several instances of police violence against Black men came to light in spring 2019.

One change increases the length of time the city can keep disciplinary records on file. Previously, such records could be retained for one to three years, depending on the severity of the infraction. Now, the records can be kept for two to four years, with files relating to "significant discipline" — such as for uses of force and harassment — retained permanently.

The agreement also officially codifies that the civilian-led Police Commission can advise the chief on matters of discipline and clarifies that commissioners — and the mayor — can have access to certain records during internal investigations.

Another new provision: Officers who were previously terminated by another law enforcement agency are no longer eligible to be hired in Burlington.

The contract falls short of several recommendations made by CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit that the city hired last year to perform a wide-ranging assessment of department operations. The consultants had advised keeping all performance-related records on file for an officer's full tenure; to adopt a 12-hour shift instead of the current 10-hour blocks; and to create a Citizen Review Board that would have the final say in internal investigations.
Councilors were barred from discussing the contract's contents until after it was ratified. Speaking generally before the vote, Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3) said he still wants to explore other recommendations in the CNA report.

"I'm committed to doing that work over the next several months and hope to find partners in the acting chief and the BPOA and the administration to ensure that we're making these changes to restore trust within the community," he said.

Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) agreed that the contract "doesn't have everything that we need to restore community trust." Councilor Freeman suggested the city should explore ways to involve more public input in contract talks.

Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2) acknowledged that Progressives didn't get everything they asked for in negotiations, and suggested that the city should seek reforms apart from the police contract. Alluding to the murder-suicide in his Old North End neighborhood, Bergman lamented that the city's previous attempts at regulating firearms have stalled in the legislature. He called on community partners to keep Burlington safe.

"This contract is a piece, but it is only one piece of the transformation that we need to make," Bergman said. "This is a long march that we are on, and this is one step."