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Cut the Police: The Bid to Slash Law Enforcement Funding in Vermont

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Activists confronting Burlington police chiefs at a May 30 protest - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Activists confronting Burlington police chiefs at a May 30 protest

The speakers just kept coming.

On June 8, some 250 people Zoomed in to a Burlington Board of Finance meeting. The next night, 100 more flooded a virtual gathering of the city's citizen police commission. One after another, they laid out their demands: Cut the number of officers in the Burlington Police Department, invest in communities of color, get cops out of schools, and fire those with a history of violence. The activists, spurred into action by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, asked that the city council not pass a budget until the demands were met.

"I am outraged," Rebecca McBroom told the finance board last week. "I'm infuriated to live in this country and to see the way the African Americans are treated after 400 years. We have not progressed. We have not gone forward. We have seen enough. And we are calling on you because Burlington is no better."

In just two days, Queen City officials heard, in two-minute snippets, more than 10 hours of citizen testimony — a record even in a city known for its politically engaged populace.

By midweek, Mayor Miro Weinberger had vowed to reduce the police budget for fiscal year 2021, which the council must approve before July 1. A few days later, during a press conference on Monday, he announced $1.1 million in cuts to the proposed $17.4 million police budget. About $300,000 would be shifted to social service agencies and to fund a second position in the city's newly created Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Most of the savings — $800,000 — would go toward reducing a $12 million budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

For many activists, the cuts in police spending don't go deep enough, and nearly 1,000 people came out to say so at a virtual city council meeting Monday night.

"It is not OK for the mayor to believe that he has a better plan than the people who have been in this work for a long time," Ashley Laporte told councilors.

"If you pass this budget without meeting these demands, you are not hearing us, and you do not represent us," Karla Salazar said.

"This takes courage. It takes leadership," Llu Mulvaney-Stanak urged the council. "We can lead Vermont. We can lead this country. Get fired fucking up right now."

Only a fraction of all the speakers had a chance to talk before the meeting was halted at 2:30 a.m. But councilors themselves echoed many of the activists' complaints.

In an interview Tuesday morning, Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said she wouldn't even classify Weinberger's proposed changes as cuts. Progressive councilors are working on a resolution that proposes police reforms "above and beyond" the mayor's, she said.

"I would love to just walk up to Miro and go, 'Are you kidding me?'" Stromberg said. "We need to totally gut the system and really rebuild, reevaluate what we need as a community."

Over the last century, policing has come to be regarded as an essential public service — and police budgets as inviolable. Law enforcement spending has ballooned to pay for more training, more officers and more modern equipment. Speaking against such spending has been politically untenable for many elected officials, even as crime rates nationwide have plummeted.

George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis last month has changed the conversation. Floyd, a black man, died after Derek Chauvin, a white officer, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin was fired and has been charged with second-degree murder. Three cops who stood by were also fired and face charges of aiding and abetting Floyd's death.

Video of the slow-motion killing has sparked weeks of nationwide protests, vigils and, in some cities, riots. What began as a protest against police violence has quickly blossomed into nationwide calls to eradicate the racism that infects American society. In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott and leaders from the largest law enforcement agencies have rushed to express support for the message that black lives matter.

Far less certain is the extent to which those leaders — and many of the thousands of people who have recently joined local protests or used online hashtags — support the movement's sweeping agenda. Black activists and an increasing number of white allies say symbolic gestures and incremental reforms aren't enough. Many want the institutions that oppress people of color to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up, starting with law enforcement.

The push to "defund the police" is quickly becoming the next fault line in the long and troubled quest for racial justice. Some activists have used the phrase to call for the complete abolition of police departments in favor of community-based alternatives. But most advocates, including many in Vermont, use the slogan as shorthand for reducing police budgets and reallocating those dollars to social services.

Critics call the concept a dangerous, knee-jerk reaction that would leave communities less safe by making it harder for police to respond to crimes. Supporters argue that police spend much of their time dealing with problems stemming from homelessness, poverty and mental illness. They say that better-funded social services could handle many of those responsibilities in a way that is safer for residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

In Vermont, the calls for reallocating some police spending go beyond liberal Burlington. Activists are pressing city and town councils around the state to reconfigure or cut funding for police. Some lawmakers have questioned whether the Vermont State Police budget of $70 million is justified.

Could Floyd's death, some 1,300 miles away, prove to be a tipping point in Vermont?

"I don't care to make any projections on this thing at all, but one thing I can tell you for certain," said Mark Hughes, the coordinator of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance. "We're not going anywhere."

Operation Phoenix

Protesters leaving signs outside the Burlington Police Department after a May 30 rally - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Protesters leaving signs outside the Burlington Police Department after a May 30 rally

The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance formed in 2017 and is now an arm of Justice for All, a Burlington-based criminal justice reform organization. Led by a 20-person steering committee, the alliance has organized several notable efforts to spotlight issues faced by communities of color.

The group helped to create Vermont's first state-level racial equity director position, now held by Xusana Davis. It advocated for a similar position in Burlington; Tyeastia Green, who grew up on the Minneapolis block where Floyd was killed, started work in early April.

The alliance's goal is to eliminate in Vermont the forms of discrimination long embedded in American society and perpetuated by civic and economic institutions. One example of such systemic racism, advocates say, is the disproportionate rate at which police historically stop, search and arrest black drivers.

There are other examples in law enforcement. In Burlington, some 20 percent of police use-of-force incidents during the seven-year period ending in 2018 involved black people, who comprise just 5 percent of the city's population. The alliance has called for a 30 percent reduction in uniformed police officers.

Reducing police budgets is just one way of changing the system, but it's a concept that white people can understand, Hughes said.

"All it is is a means to an end, because we know there are two things about the police that are true: No. 1, they have their knees on our neck. And No. 2, they have money that we need to mitigate or to eradicate systemic racism," Hughes said.

After Floyd's death, the alliance reached out to community activists and other organizations to mobilize a response. The group sent out a script for people to use when they called in to Burlington meetings — information that allies publicized by distributing posters around the city. The alliance then launched Operation Phoenix, a plan that would "transform the lives of black and brown people by investing in their lives, holding space for their culture, providing them opportunity and ensuring the equity they deserve to thrive."

The plan calls for the creation of a task force that would consider reparations for Burlington's role in chattel slavery. It also asks the city to fund data collection efforts on racial equity and inclusion, and to declare racism a citywide health crisis, something Weinberger has said he will do.

But with the council set to adopt a budget by month's end, the demand to cut police funding has taken center stage.

'Not more violence'

The case against Sgt. Jason Bellavance was closed before most people knew he'd done anything wrong. On September 9, 2018, a man smoking outside JP's Pub saw the Burlington police shift supervisor approach two men who were arguing on a sidewalk. Without warning, Bellavance shoved Jérémie Meli, 25, a Congolese immigrant and local DJ, toward a wall. Meli was knocked out cold, triggering a chaotic scene as his distraught brothers yelled at the officer who'd injured him.

Within two hours, the witness filed an online citizen complaint with police. A subsequent internal investigation concluded that Bellavance had used unnecessary force. After confidential input from the Burlington Police Commission, the sergeant was quietly suspended without pay for between two and three weeks, according to the department.

Police bodycam footage of the encounter only surfaced eight months later, when the Meli brothers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. Their attorneys released the video along with footage from another September 2018 downtown incident in which Officer Joseph Corrow knocked out Mabior Jok, a Sudanese refugee, during an arrest. Jok is also suing the department.

The videos of police violence against young black men became public as the department faced another public relations crisis. Officer Cory Campbell had slugged Douglas Kilburn during a physical confrontation outside the University of Vermont Medical Center in March 2019. Kilburn, who was white, died days later, and the medical examiner said the officer's blows contributed to his death.

The new videos caused immediate outcry.

Activists staged a speak-out rally at city hall and read off the names of black people killed by police. A small group formed BTV CopWatch and began observing officers in real time, armed with cellphone cameras.

Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington convened an emergency community meeting to demand accountability from the police. Members penned a list of demands very similar to the current one: Fire Bellavance, Corrow and Campbell; require timely release of bodycam videos; and "halt the hiring of new officers, and instead employ more social workers for the community."

"What our community needs is more support, not more violence," the organization's official response said. "As the police officers of the BPD have shown an inability to de-escalate and an instinct of violence, their presence does not promote safety in our community."

In early June 2019, three Progressive city councilors introduced a resolution to codify the demands. To other city officials, the idea was a nonstarter. Jackie Corbally, a civilian who serves as the Burlington Police Department's opioid policy manager, told councilors that asking social workers to respond to emergency calls without armed backup would be "incredibly dangerous."

Democratic councilors called the resolution "anti-union." They argued that the police should weigh in on proposed reforms and that the council should trust the chief to assess how many officers the city needs on patrol. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said that Burlington needed more cops. "I know, in my neighborhood, there are times when we call the police because we need them, but they can't come because they have higher priorities downtown," she said.

Even some Progs said they were unwilling to limit the size of the force. "It's the piece of this resolution which is perhaps the most objectionable and will lead to its defeat tonight," Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) said.

"Here's the bottom line on this," an impassioned Weinberger said. "We are very fortunate to have a great police department. We have a great police department because of decades of strong leadership."

The measure failed on a 9-3 vote, with only its sponsors voting in support.

"Other councilors were pretty incredulous," lead sponsor Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) recalled last week about the Prog proposal. "People thought it was absurd. They ridiculed it."

Instead, councilors created a special committee to review the department's use-of-force policy and other directives. The group issued a report in February recommending that a new policy require officers to de-escalate situations whenever possible and intervene when they witness other officers using excessive force. The coronavirus pandemic sidelined discussion on the group's recommendations, but Weinberger revived the issue after Floyd's death. The police commission passed the updated policy Tuesday.

"I feel considerable urgency to put this new policy in place," the mayor said earlier this month.

By then, protests had swept through Burlington, as well as dozens of small Vermont towns that had previously seemed removed from the controversies of urban policing. Activists took the opportunity to call for bolder reforms.

"People in the community, whether that's here in Burlington, statewide or nationwide, are really looking for ways to channel their energy through that sadness or hopelessness or just rage," said Skyler Nash, a Vermont Racial Justice Alliance steering committee member.

"All different types of people ... are waking up to the fact that the way things have been is wrong, and it's not OK, and we're not going to accept the status quo going forward," he said.

In some ways, Burlington is back to where it was a year ago. Activists are calling for a reduction in the number of police officers and for the firing of Bellavance, Corrow and Campbell. But this time, the city council and the mayor are paying attention.

"There's an army of people who are ready to organize, ready to elevate their voices in ways that [are] going to make this a lot harder for anybody who's trying to ignore it," Nash said.

The Movement Spreads

Protesters marching Saturday in Colchester - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Protesters marching Saturday in Colchester

Burlington isn't the only Vermont city where citizens have marched in the streets to demand change, nor is it the only one where activists are arguing that police reforms won't suffice.

The St. Albans Police Department has been tarnished in the last year by a string of officer misconduct claims and criminal charges. Jason Lawton, a former union steward and shift supervisor, faces an assault charge for delivering an uppercut to a handcuffed woman in a holding cell last year. A more recent recruit, Zachary Pigeon, was charged in April with rape and kidnapping while off duty, months after police brass had reprimanded him for using a racial slur in a joke to a biracial colleague. Two other recent departures — corporals Joel Daugreilh and Mark Schwartz — face ongoing criminal probes related to their on-duty conduct.

After months of denying a culture problem on a force with fewer than 30 sworn officers, city officials in April hired an outside consultant to review the department's hiring practices. Longtime Chief Gary Taylor announced his upcoming retirement shortly thereafter.

None of the incidents had generated much public protest. At an August 2019 St. Albans City Council meeting, shortly after Seven Days published video of Lawton's punch, a 68-year-old resident was the department's lone critic.

But last week, when the city council met virtually over Zoom, several residents were waiting in the digital queue. Kate Larose asked each councilor, as well as the mayor, to describe their "ideal" hopes for police reform and oversight. Resident Angie Sturm asked city leaders to move money from the police budget to other human services.

"The corruption of the St. Albans Police Department is not new, and it's been going on for decades. It's time for the city council to take the side of the people and stop defending the police as an institution," said Marianne Hunkin, a St. Albans resident who runs a youth mentoring program.

"The St. Albans Police Department is beyond reform, and it is not enough to bring on a new police chief," she said. "I call on you to consider how to better invest in our community and am demanding divestment from the police."

Under the name Neighbors for a Safer St. Albans, 11 activists followed up with a letter and a series of records requests. They wanted a roster of every officer on the force. They wanted to understand the police budget. They wanted six years of traffic stop data, and they wanted to know why the data hadn't already been published on the city's website.

City manager Dominic Cloud said the questions appeared to be inspired by the recently reignited racial justice movement. "They weren't actively engaged until the Floyd incident," he said. "Many of them are new faces and new names."

Cloud said he thinks the calls to reduce police spending don't account for local circumstances. "Any time you take a national call, a one-size-fits-all approach, it can be difficult to scale it up and apply to Vermont's communities," he said.

But he was more amenable to posting departmental data online. "We just weren't aware anyone was interested in it," he said.

In fact, Hunkin told Seven Days this week, she had requested some information from the police department last October. Angered by the Lawton video, she joined BTV CopWatch activists for a shift in St. Albans last summer and talked to some residents about their experiences.

"There were multiple people who said that they had complained and that nobody cared," she recalled.

The city council put out a statement a week after the June 8 meeting promising an "open and honest discussion" as leaders seek the "right solutions for our police department."

"The City Council will not hesitate to use its authority to identify and change policies that contribute to oppression and injustice," the council wrote, stressing that the elected officials will "work to examine our own biases and those of our police department head on."

"To those calling for us to take a broader view of what policing might look like in our community: We hear you," the statement reads.

The divestment call isn't likely to spur immediate action, because the city already approved its budget for this year. But Reier Erickson, an activist who bought a home in St. Albans last year, said the city must begin "a reimagining of what police do and a reinvesting in our community."

That work extends beyond city hall to community organizing in a city that Erickson said can sometimes feel "like a bubble."

"As a black man living in Vermont ... I've had scary interactions with the police," he said. "But the big incidents in St. Albans weren't black people. That woman in the jail cell who was punched in the face by a police officer wasn't black."

Erickson continued: "The more we think about this as a community unity problem and not just a problem affecting people who are oppressed, the more traction it will get."

'We Need Police'

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The movement has even made its way to the Statehouse. Last week, three Progressive lawmakers urged their colleagues to divert at least 20 percent of Vermont State Police spending to other community services, citing similar movements in Minneapolis and New York City.

"We have an opportunity to strategically align our resources with services that are better able to meet the needs of our communities and keep all Vermonters safe," Reps. Diana González (P-Winooski), Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) and Brian Cina (P/D-Burlington) wrote in an open letter published last week.

The Vermont State Police budget represents a sliver of Vermont's multibillion-dollar budget. Trimming 20 percent of the $64 million in state support proposed for fiscal year 2021 would save roughly $12.8 million. The Progressive lawmakers say that money would be better spent elsewhere, on a series of investments in social services and support for communities of color.

If the legislature cuts 20 percent from the Vermont State Police budget, "someone would have to choose what we're not going to do," Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, a former Burlington police chief, told Seven Days last week.

"Do we not cover certain communities? Do we not do traffic enforcement? I can't imagine Vermonters would be very happy with a free-for-all on our highways," he said.

The cut would be a tough sell for legislators such as Rep. Carl Demrow (D-Corinth), whose district includes six rural towns in Orange County that do not have police departments of their own and instead contract with either state police or county sheriffs to patrol their roads.

"We have issues with crime in these towns, and we need policing," Demrow said. "We need police to be there when we call."

Lawmakers are currently working on a bridge budget that would level-fund most state departments and buy the legislature time to understand the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The Progressives want lawmakers to consider their request as they work to build the full budget over the summer.

They're unlikely to get much traction; top lawmakers are skeptical that the nationwide movement should be applied to a small state such as Vermont, and Republican Gov. Scott has said he does not support cutting the state police budget.

Instead, Scott said he wants to focus on reforming and modernizing law enforcement, two ideas that have been given new life by Floyd's death. One legislative proposal in particular — S.219 — combines several nonfinancial reforms into a single sweeping measure. It would limit officers' use of deadly force to instances when it's a last resort. (The current standard allows shootings if a "reasonable" person would have done the same.) The bill would also compel agencies to report race data, ban chokeholds and more.

Scott voiced support for some of the proposals last week, writing on Twitter that Vermonters cannot continue to treat racist incidents "like uncomfortable and rare events."

But activists, including Hughes of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, argue that "spontaneous, knee-jerk" reforms will do little more than make white legislators feel like they have accomplished something.

"It is now abundantly clear," wrote American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont executive director James Lyall in testimony submitted to lawmakers last week, "that if we hope to address police abuse and advance racial justice in Vermont, the role of law enforcement must be smaller, more circumscribed, and less funded with taxpayer dollars."

Church Street Beat

A storefront on Church Street - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A storefront on Church Street

Many storefront windows on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace now feature Black Lives Matter signs. Some, such as the one at Global Pathways Jewelry, are displayed unobtrusively alongside notices about mask use and store hours. Others, including one at Outdoor Gear Exchange, are big and bold, occupying nearly an entire window. BLM signs run the length of Urban Outfitters' glass façade.

When Seven Days canvassed Church Street business owners and managers last Friday afternoon asking for thoughts about calls to trim police budgets, many declined to speak. One shop owner feared making people unhappy no matter what he said. Another said he didn't want to upset the police. Many others said they simply didn't know enough to comment.

Burlington police maintain a regular presence on the marketplace. Foot patrols are routine along the pedestrian mall — and, at least for some, not entirely unwelcome. Last Friday afternoon, two outdoor diners leapt from their table outside Sweetwaters American Bistro to nab selfies with two officers, who obliged.

Erin Brennan, manager at Jess Boutique and its sister store Expressions, said she's interested in learning more about the movement to reduce police funding. She's called the police to respond to her stores a number of times in the last decade.

But she has also seen how civilian social workers can sometimes de-escalate situations better than armed officers.

"When they come in to intervene, it's so much better than someone coming in not knowing the situation or the person involved," Brennan said.

A few blocks up the street, Dominic Metcalfe, owner of the Vermont Distillers and Smugglers' Notch Distillery tasting room, was also keeping an open mind. Metcalfe has never called the police about a problem at his store, but he noted that one of his former female managers had experienced several incidents of harassment that required police intervention.

"We've got pepper spray," said Metcalfe, nodding to a nearby counter. But he also stressed that shopkeepers "definitely need a police patrol on Church Street for us to feel comfortable."

Still, "a reduction of 30 percent wouldn't mean there aren't cops on the street," he said. If redistributing funds to other social services might ease the city's reliance on police, he continued, then that is a "general idea I can get behind."

'What Took You So Long?'

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The calls to cut the Burlington police budget quickly put departmental brass and the officers' union on the defensive. Interim Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said immediate cuts to the number of cops patrolling would "be very dangerous for the citizens of Burlington."

"A 30 percent reduction in our uniformed police officers would mean basically jettisoning every bit of community policing that we've been doing in the last 20 years," she said.

Burlington's police budget can fund up to 105 sworn officers; the department currently has 93. The mayor originally proposed carrying those 12 vacancies until January, when the city would send four recruits to the Vermont Police Academy — as long as the coronavirus doesn't torpedo the winter training session. The city would leave the remaining eight spots open.

But as part of the cuts he announced Monday, Weinberger proposed leaving all 12 spots vacant. He also proposed moving certain police responsibilities, such as parking enforcement, to other city departments. A chunk of the $1.1 million would likely go to services such as the Howard Center's Street Outreach Team, which dispatches social workers to calls involving people experiencing a mental health crisis or substance use issues.

The proposed changes aren't necessarily permanent, however. Weinberger said an outside group would study whether the 93-officer roster is sufficient. The report would be due by March 2021.

Morrison, who had not yet seen the mayor's proposal when speaking to Seven Days last week, said social services would need to be bolstered before cops are cut from the picture. Until then, "the minute a situation turns dangerous, who are they going to call? It's going to be police," she said.

Morrison said both department leadership and members of the Burlington Police Officers' Association are open to the conversation, but a recent statement penned by the union suggested otherwise. The letter attacked the proposals to cut the budget as "radical and dangerous" and charged that city councilors were only supporting the demands to make "catchy headlines." The union released a second, toned-down message late last week that pledged to work with the police commission on reform. But the damage was already done.

"I don't know how you read those letters and see an openness to change," Burlington City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) said. He added: "Clearly, that letter is coming from a place of fear. They're not used to having their power challenged like this, really, ever."

Union representatives did not respond to an interview request from Seven Days.

Weinberger met with members of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance last week to discuss their demands. At a press conference on Monday, alliance members said the mayor never followed up as promised before presenting his budget publicly.

"He lied to us," Mayumi Cornell said. "He basically sat down at the table, gave a whole 25-minute spiel about how, 'Yeah, we have to change, this has to change, blah blah blah blah blah,' and it was all just a bunch of hot air. He's speaking with a forked tongue."

Weinberger said Tuesday that he plans to meet with alliance members in the coming days. Spokesperson Olivia LaVecchia said Monday that the mayor was "concerned" by the group's accusation that he didn't negotiate in good faith.

Tracy and some of his Progressive colleagues have said they won't support a budget unless it reflects the activists' demands. Progressive councilors will have just one meeting in June to pass their resolution and only six votes on the 12-member council. As long as all the Progs are aligned, that's enough to shoot down the mayor's budget — but one vote short of forcing deeper cuts in spending on police.

It's unclear where the five Democratic councilors will fall on the issue; most did not return interview requests about the mayor's budget cuts. Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) said that he agrees that Weinberger's proposal "isn't aggressive enough," but he's skeptical that the activists' demands would have the desired effect.

"People feel that race is an issue and that certain crimes are investigated a certain way, but I'm not sure that if we reduce the number that will change," Paulino said Tuesday.

Even if the Progressives could secure enough votes, they also recognize that laying off some 20 officers would invite a messy and public fight with the union.

With that in mind, the Progs have considered that changes may need to be phased in over time. Councilors Hanson and Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) both want fewer police officers but would prefer to see the goal accomplished through attrition rather than mass layoffs. Hightower said she doesn't feel obligated to advocate for radical, immediate change.

"My role as a person of color on the board is to educate other councilors," she said, "and show that communities of color have been suffering and that we need to take bold action."

Pine said the city needs to envision an entirely new system of public safety, but that can't happen before the July 1 budget deadline.

"A sense of urgency is critical and it's called for, but yet we also need to remember that we didn't just get here recently; this didn't just happen," Pine said of systemic racism.

"The culture [of policing] needs to be fully reworked, rethought and redone," he continued. "And we're going to be looking at a new police chief a year from now ... but before we do that, I think we need, as a community, to have a really meaningful dialogue."

Activists like Nash, with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, believe the conversation can't wait. America is in the midst of a "once in a generation, if not a lifetime" moment to address issues of race and policing, he said. The University of Vermont senior said people he has known for years have finally become vocal about racial injustice. The question now is whether that momentum can be sustained.

"I find myself asking, 'What took you so long?' And secondly, 'Is your outrage going to begin and end with that Black Lives Matter post?'" Nash said. "For a lot of people, that will be the case, and it can't.

"It can't just begin and end with one protest," he added. "It's got to go a lot deeper than that."