Force Reboot? Controversies Dog Queen City Cops, and There's No Consensus on Solutions | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Force Reboot? Controversies Dog Queen City Cops, and There's No Consensus on Solutions


Published October 2, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Brandon del Pozo - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Brandon del Pozo

Burlington City Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) thought his resolution was a no-brainer. During a September 23 meeting, the council's lone Republican offered a straightforward message of support for Burlington police officers, writing that the council "recognizes the difficult but incredibly important work they perform on a daily basis."

Rather than sailing through, the measure touched off an hourlong debate on police accountability and morale. A majority eventually passed it, 7-5, with all five Progressive councilors voting no.

Wright touched a nerve. For the past six months, the Burlington Police Department and its chief, Brandon del Pozo, have been on the defensive, enmeshed in controversy after controversy. And more than the trust of the public has been shaken, according to Cpl. Dan Gilligan, the Burlington Police Officers' Association president. He told Seven Days that officers feel unsupported by department leadership.

While crises have enveloped the department before, some city councilors say they've never seen such a sustained run of bad news out of 1 North Avenue. Yet in nearly two dozen recent interviews, elected officials, members of the public and police officers themselves offered little in the way of solutions. As the issue grows more and more polarizing, some fear that politics will impede needed reform.

"We're picking sides: You're either for police or against police," Dave Hartnett, a former longtime Democratic city councilor known for his independent streak, said of the current climate. "If we continue down that road with that message, it's not going to be productive for the City of Burlington."

The string of controversies began in March, when a Burlington man with health problems died days after an officer punched him. Both the police chief and Mayor Miro Weinberger disputed the state medical examiner's findings that the death was a homicide.

Weeks later, two black men sued the department, claiming excessive use of force, and their lawyers produced footage of cops knocking each of the men unconscious in separate incidents last fall outside downtown bars. Some residents subsequently formed BTV CopWatch and began following officers on patrol, cameras at the ready. The council formed a committee to review police practices and, after a contentious debate in June, appointed three black men as new members of the police commission, an advisory group that reviews citizen complaints.

Dan Gilligan - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Dan Gilligan

Then del Pozo went out on a six-week medical leave without explaining why. While he was gone, Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) floated the idea of disarming the force during an interview with a local TV station. The notion sparked criticism and inspired Wright's resolution last week.

"I just never think it's fair, because of some really tragic incidents, to throw everybody in the police department under the bus," Wright said. "What a fair amount of people in the public have done is to take a brush and tar the entire police department with that brush."

At last week's council meeting, New North End resident Ericka Bundy Redic thanked police "for not giving up on Burlington, even though Burlington has given up on you." The cops were "dragged through filth before anybody stood up and said anything," she said in a follow-up interview. "That is not OK."

Wright's resolution, though, failed to account for the drama unspooling within the department. Gilligan said del Pozo and other department leaders didn't do enough to protect rank-and-file officers when activists took aim at them.

"At some point, you have to pick a side," Gilligan said. Police leadership "really, really strives to appease this group of people and, unfortunately, that is at the cost of its relationships with its police officers."

Gilligan, a 17-year department veteran, claimed that del Pozo was spooked by a 2017 report that concluded cops across Vermont disproportionately stop, search and ticket black and Hispanic drivers. While the chief never issued a directive to reduce traffic enforcement, Gilligan said, city cops let up because they don't trust that department leadership would have their backs in a racial profiling lawsuit. In 2018, they stopped fewer than half the number of vehicles they stopped in 2015. And they ticketed drivers only 20 percent of the time, which also reflects a decline since 2015. Gilligan said traffic stops are one way to intercept illicit opioids.

Source: Burlington Police Department - ANDREA SUOZZO
  • Andrea Suozzo
  • Source: Burlington Police Department

Five officers have left the department in the last month, and at least one cited the political climate as a contributing factor, Gilligan said. That's part of a larger problem in Burlington: About half of the 102 officers hired during the last decade have left the department, according to union data Gilligan provided to Seven Days.

Del Pozo didn't cause the retention problem, but he hasn't exactly won over his troops, either, according to Gilligan. The chief's appointment of Jon Murad as deputy chief of operations last fall is one particular sore spot for union members, who say Murad's inexperience has made even rookies question whether he can effectively lead the department.

The union took its concerns to Weinberger last spring and again while del Pozo was on leave. Even before del Pozo took leave, Gilligan said that, as a leader, "He has not been present." The union worries that if del Pozo resigns, Murad could be his preferred successor. Both men are Ivy League-educated alumni of the New York Police Department who practice criminal justice with a side of philosophy. For instance, rather than reading the riot act to protesters last month at Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) Burlington office, Murad mused on the meanings of true civil disobedience.

But to Gilligan, Murad and del Pozo's style is less concerning than their substance. The union wants department brass to stand up for its officers.

By "being an apologist for things that didn't need to be apologized for, [del Pozo] left the impression" that cops messed up, Gilligan said of the downtown bar incidents. "He could have done a lot more to speak out."

Del Pozo disagreed. He noted the public outcry over the lax punishments he meted out to the officers involved. And he pointed out that his efforts to intervene in the medical examiner's homicide findings were "to make sure the officer got the fairest treatment possible.

"To say that we didn't bear a burden or stick by our beliefs in fair treatment of cops — that's not entirely true," he continued.

Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) — the longest-tenured councilor, with 32 years under her belt — noted that tensions existed before del Pozo arrived. In 2013, a Burlington cop fatally shot Wayne Brunette, a mentally disturbed man wielding a shovel.

Then, shortly after del Pozo started, an officer shot and killed 76-year-old Ralph "Phil" Grenon in March 2016. Grenon, too, suffered from mental illness.

Citizens want police "to help them, not to harm them," Bushor said. "That feeling has been shaken somewhat."

Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), a Burlington resident for nearly 40 years, said he couldn't recall a time of greater public reckoning over police practices. As long as cops continue to disproportionately target black citizens, Pine said, "we're not going to be able to restore that public trust."

The newly formed Committee to Review Policing Policies is the council's attempt to do just that. The 15-member group is expected to issue recommendations on the department's use-of-force policy, training regimen and disciplinary practices.

University of Vermont junior Skyler Nash, a black man who grew up on the south side of Chicago, is a member of the committee. While he was disappointed with Wright's resolution, Nash said cops should be afforded both oversight and support.

"This reform work gets so difficult because it's not just black-and-white issues," Nash said.

Many of the councilors interviewed for this story wanted to wait for the committee's report before endorsing any solution. However, Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said he sees at least one "glaring hole" in the department's disciplinary procedures.

"We have pretty strong language around use of force and excessive use of force ... [but] we don't have accountability if that policy is violated," Hanson said.

Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) agreed. He pointed to the uneven discipline given to officers in very different circumstances. Del Pozo suspended two cops in January for three weeks without pay after they drank beer they'd confiscated. Meanwhile, the chief didn't punish one of the officers who was sued for excessive use of force, while a second received an unpaid suspension of less than three weeks.

"I think [del Pozo] sees himself as being a reformer in the context of American policing," Tracy said, adding, "Whether or not he really implements or agrees with or is willing to go along with the reforms remains to be seen."

For his part, Weinberger said he has full confidence in del Pozo to carry out the committee-suggested changes while maintaining the confidence of his officers. But he recognized the last few months have been a challenging time for the department.

"You can't have good policing, effective policing, without trust," Weinberger said. "Any erosion of that trust is cause for concern."

Del Pozo dismissed the police union's charge that he has checked out and reiterated his commitment to Burlington and to accountability. If he could redo any action in the last few months, del Pozo said, he'd have told the public about the downtown use-of-force incidents before the lawsuits were filed, even though that would have broken from department precedent. He added that the police commission's new makeup — its members are now majority minority — should help restore some of the community's diminished trust.

"How do we get past this? I think you're seeing that happen," del Pozo said. "We owe cops support, and we also owe them the opportunity to come to work on a day-to-day basis [and] do good police work."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Force Reboot? | As controversies dog Queen City cops, there's no consensus on solutions"