Red Scare: Former Police Chief del Pozo Claims Burlington’s 'Socialists' Did Him In | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Red Scare: Former Police Chief del Pozo Claims Burlington’s 'Socialists' Did Him In


Published June 9, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2021 at 4:55 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Tim Newcomb

Oh, please. Not that tired old trope.

Former Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo is shifting responsibility for the social media scandal that cost him his job in Burlington in late 2019. Now he's blaming "the Socialists" on the city council for his downfall. He also maintains that he resigned only after Mayor Miro Weinberger refused to defend him from opponents who had "their knives out."

That's different from the two men's earlier claim that del Pozo's behavior — trolling a critic on Twitter with a fake account — was the consequence of a serious concussion he suffered in a 2018 bike crash.

Del Pozo was testifying recently to New Hampshire legislators about a bill on limited immunity for police officers when a Granite State lawmaker asked about his departure from Burlington. Del Pozo said his tenure had been going well until "the Socialists" took control of the city council and sought to overhaul his police department. Del Pozo started by noting that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lives in "very left-leaning" Burlington. 

"Even as a very progressive police officer, I was seen by many people on the far left as some sort of right-leaning — I was a cop; I could do no right," he said. Before he was hired as chief in 2015, del Pozo was a New York City police officer for 19 years. 

"I had an excellent relationship with the [Burlington] community until ... the Progressive Party, which is the Socialist Party, took over the city council [and] they decided to try and disarm my police officers, reduce the size of my police department. They said 40 percent of my officers were domestic abusers, and I reacted poorly to that," he said. 

At that point, he said he did what "many, many, many" people have done and set up an anonymous Twitter account and used it to taunt a critic.

Progressives picked up two council seats in 2019 but didn't actually gain a political plurality on the 12-member body until Town Meeting Day in 2020, three months after del Pozo departed. In June 2020, after intense community pressure, the council voted to reduce the police force by 30 percent and cap the number of uniformed officers at 74. The council reaffirmed that decision in February, even after acting Police Chief Jon Murad warned that fewer cops could limit police response.

The city is facing several excessive-force lawsuits related to del Pozo's four years in Burlington. Del Pozo told lawmakers he is a defendant in three federal claims. 

Raising the Red Scare is nothing new in Burlington. It was a frequent drumbeat during Sanders' eight years as mayor. His 1981 upset win caused some local businesspeople to gasp, fearing that he would put into practice his belief that utilities, banks and major industries should be publicly owned.

Sanders raised eyebrows when he went to Nicaragua to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista National Liberation Front's successful revolution. Then, shortly after he married Jane O'Meara Sanders in 1988, there was the "honeymoon" trip to Russia to set up a sister city program in Yaroslavl.

But the fears of incipient socialism came to nothing during Sanders' eight years as mayor. Local banks and industries remained safe from his clutches.

In addition to "the Socialists," Del Pozo claimed his downfall was sealed when Weinberger wouldn't expend the political capital needed to save his job. 

"My mayor said, 'This is a tremendous fight; the Socialists have their knives out. I can invest in your career, but you've already applied to other jobs.' So I resigned," del Pozo told the lawmakers.

By then, del Pozo said, he'd had two interviews to lead the Philadelphia Police Department and one at a philanthropic organization. Del Pozo didn't get either job.

The former chief did not respond to Fair Game's several requests for an interview. He is currently a drug policy researcher at the Miriam Hospital, an affiliate of Brown University, in Providence, R.I.

Weinberger remembers events differently.

"Certainly, the Mayor would not refer to his colleagues on the City Council in such a derogatory way," Samantha Sheehan, Weinberger's spokesperson, said in a statement. "Former Chief del Pozo's recollection of this period of time ... has proven to be unreliable and inconsistent with those of the City Attorney, the Mayor, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, and others. None of the senior officials involved recall any awareness that the former Chief was an applicant for a job at that time, or that the former Chief's outreach to other cities played any role in the Administration's support of him during this challenging period."

Del Pozo's account of his departure didn't sit well with Police Commission member Melo Grant, who told fellow commissioners at their May 25 meeting that the former chief's "rhetoric" and "false narrative" were woefully misguided and "insulting" to residents. Grant said the former chief could use a "birds and the bees" lesson on how representative democracy works: Residents, some concerned about police misconduct, put those new city councilors in place, she said.

"An attack on the city council is an attack on the community they represent, because that community voted them in," Grant said. 

Polston Steps Back

The first time I saw Pamela Polston, she was belting out a tune at Hunt's as the lead singer for the Decentz in the mid-'80s. Later she edited my stories when we worked together at the Vanguard Press, before she and Paula Routly cofounded Seven Days. She's cool, classy and sharp. In 2015, she and Routly were inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.

Polston recently told staffers that she will significantly reduce her role at the paper later this summer. She'll continue to direct visual arts coverage and will keep writing, but she'll retire as associate publisher and coeditor and step down from day-to-day duties as features editor. 

"It's a win-win," Polston said. "I get to keep doing things I love and step back a bit." 

Reflecting on their years together, Routly said, "Pamela and I have been collaborating and depending on each other for almost three decades ... to build and sustain this company. Seven Days would not be the chronicle of local culture that it is without Pamela's leadership, judgment, taste and award-winning arts writing. Thankfully, she's cultivated reporters and editors, too. Two of them, both longtime staffers, will share Pamela's outsize job of finding and shaping arts and features stories into the future."

Polston said business leaders early on advised the two founders to develop a succession plan. As part of that plan, Polston sold her ownership shares to several key employees over the years.

Now she says her personal plan includes some traveling. 

"My big love is Paris," she said. "So I can't wait to get back there."

Late Wins

Environmental activists, including Vermont's Bill McKibben, are cheering several big wins in the boardroom and courthouse in the effort to slow the climate crisis. McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature was the first layman's volume to sound the alarm, said recent actions at home and abroad gave him hope. In the next breath, he sighed that they still may be too late.

Here's what happened. In the U.S., shareholders pushing big energy producers to shift from taking oil out of the ground to greener alternatives just won seats on the boards of Exxon and Chevron. In Europe, a court ordered Shell to cut its products' emissions by 45 percent.

"If your business is selling maple creemees and the Vermont Supreme Court orders you to cut the amount of calories you sell in half, you're going to have a lot of work to do to figure out a successful business plan," McKibben told Fair Game.  

The cofounder winced that 40 years' worth of emissions reductions would have to be packed into this decade to meet the 2030 goals of the Paris climate accord.

"Look what's happening," he said. "The Arctic is melting. We had the worst fire season around the world that we've ever seen. Last year we had the worst hurricane season in the history of the Atlantic. On and on and on. So we waited a very long time to get started. I have to restrain myself from saying, 'I wish you'd listened to me back when.'"

The investor pressure to change corporate boards, he said, is coming largely from hedge funds who fear sliding returns.

Divestment worldwide is on steroids. According to Octopus Investments, a tracking group, more than $14 trillion has been divested from fossil fuel companies globally. That's up from $52 billion in 2014, just seven years ago. Those who previously divested, McKibben said, "not only did a great service to the planet, they made out like bandits" as the overall market has gone to record highs. 

McKibben said another factor driving alternatives such as solar is how much cheaper the technology has become. And the shift from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles by some of the major car companies has added to the demand to go green, McKibben said.

In Vermont, the divestment tide has been turning. In some cases, such as at Middlebury College, it's been an about-face. In 2019, the college's board agreed to phase out all fossil fuel investments. That was a reversal from seven years earlier, when college officials flatly rejected demands from activists, including McKibben, a scholar in residence at the college.  

Last year, University of Vermont trustees agreed to divest after students and faculty brought their demands to the board. 

Green Mountain Power, Vermont's largest electric utility, divested its employee pension funds, an effort former GMP president Mary Powell dubbed "a natural evolution of the dramatic culture change" during her 12 years leading the company. The divestment push came from inside the company, she said, fueled by employees who questioned investing in fossil fuels as GMP aggressively moved to make its own power portfolio all renewable. 

"I was ecstatic," Powell said of the recent developments. "I think the big question is if they're meaningful. Can they move the dial fast enough? The reality is, the scientists are telling us the brutal facts: that this is bearing down on us quickly."

State Treasurer Beth Pearce has long opposed divestment, unconvinced that it changes corporate practices. She has been adamant that it would cost state pension funds money.

This week she told Fair Game that the most recent corporate efforts from within show change can be made through "engagement." The Vermont Pension Investment Committee supported the "dissident" shareholder replacements at Exxon and Chevron, she said.

"I think that what you're seeing is that a number of companies are recognizing the value of green investments, moving in that direction," Pearce said. "And we want to be able to assist in that and incentivize that through our shareholder activism."

A Downpour at WCAX

You could have brought an umbrella to WCAX-TV meteorologist Sharon Meyer's final broadcast Friday night.

The taped tributes hailed down from folks such as Gov. Phil Scott and from her fellow broadcasters, who shed enough tears live on the set to water all of her and Charlie Nardozzi's famed gardens.

Somehow Meyer made her way through a wonderful sign-off, unabashedly crying as she thanked all those who helped during her long career, including her weather predecessor and mentor, Stuart Hall.

The word "institution" is overused, but in Meyer's case it fits. She joined the station in 1979 after graduating from UVM, started on air in 1986 and has been in our living rooms ever since. She's covered it all: snow, ice storms, heat waves and weather disasters, including Tropical Storm Irene.

Meyer will continue to tape interviews with master gardener Nardozzi and will fill in on the weather report from time to time.

But otherwise, she plans to put down the map pointer and pick up a paddle.

"I still love my job, but I love doing other things, too, like swimming, kayaking, hiking and traveling and look forward to having more time for those things now," she told Fair Game.

Let's hope she and husband Rene Bourne catch some good weather.