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Voters in Burlington Will Consider a Major Overhaul to Police Oversight

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Mayor Miro Weinberger (left) and acting Chief Jon Murad - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger (left) and acting Chief Jon Murad

In March, voters in Burlington will consider a ballot measure that would set up a powerful police oversight board with the authority to directly punish city officers for misconduct.

The seven-member "independent community control board" could suspend, demote and even fire cops accused of wrongdoing, including the chief of police. The new model would require changing the city's charter and must ultimately be approved by city voters, the legislature and the governor.

"We heard just tons and tons and tons of testimony from the public," Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), who spearheaded the effort, said at the council's December 14 meeting. "It's just really amazing to see us getting to this point where we're really moving this proposal forward."

The 7-5 council vote to put the measure on the ballot caps off a year of nationwide reckoning with racial justice and violence in policing. In Burlington, activists occupied Battery Park for about a month to demand greater citizen oversight of police after several instances of excessive force came to light. They've called in to public meetings by the hundreds to demand that the council act, and quickly.

But not everyone is sold on the proposed model, and it could be modified before voters have their say on March 2. Mayor Miro Weinberger, for one, has introduced a counterproposal that would beef up the existing police commission but give it only a fraction of the powers found in the council-approved plan. The mayor said he worries that, as written, the charter change would drive cops out of the department, as officials say recent council actions have already.

Council Democrats appeared to agree last week; all five voted against the plan. They urged Progressives to consider hashing out the control board's powers in an ordinance, which could be modified more easily than the city charter.

"We have a proud tradition of being on the cutting edge of many issues," Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) said, but a charter change is "not something that easily goes away if we find that it doesn't work."

Council Progressives, however, say that it's time to give the power to the people. All six Progs, along with Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), voted for Freeman's proposal.

"This is an opportunity for real change in Burlington," City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) said in a recent interview. "To not do something that's bold, that's responsive to those calls for change, would be really wrong."

This summer, activists took to the streets to demand that three Burlington cops be fired for using excessive force. They argued that former chief Brandon del Pozo hadn't sufficiently punished the officers: One was suspended for about three weeks for knocking a Black man unconscious; another, who was involved in a similar incident, wasn't disciplined at all. And an officer who punched a white man during a scuffle was reprimanded for swearing, not for the blows that the state's chief medical examiner said contributed to the man's death days later.

Soon after the nightly protests began, racial justice advocate Mark Hughes resigned from the city's police commission, saying the citizen-led body has no real oversight power. In its current form as an advisory group, the panel can only recommend discipline to the police chief, who has the final say.

In response to the protests, the city council in September unanimously passed a resolution asking its Charter Change Committee to review other options for oversight.

A rally on Church Street - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • A rally on Church Street

About 160 U.S. cities and towns have some form of a police oversight board, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit that promotes transparency and accountability in policing. No two models are alike.

Late last month, the Charter Change Committee passed its proposal, and the council passed a very similar version last week. It would allow the control board to hold disciplinary hearings, subpoena witnesses and mete out punishments without the chief's approval. The board would consist of people of color; those who have experienced homelessness, substance abuse and other challenges; and employees of organizations focused on social justice. Current and former police officers would be barred from serving, as would people with cops in their immediate family.

The board would have an investigative office staffed by a paid director. That person and their staff would be able to access police records, report to crime scenes and question officers who use deadly force. The director could consult with an independent attorney and would publicly issue quarterly reports that detail the office's investigations.

In a memo to councilors on December 6, police commissioners questioned whether Burlington needs such a robust oversight system for a department that, according to acting Chief Jon Murad, received an average of roughly 30 citizen complaints each of the last three years and conducted, at most, six internal investigations annually during that time. They suggested giving their panel investigative authority rather than creating an entirely new board.

But in a recent interview with Seven Days, Freeman argued that the commission is already swamped with its other duties, which include evaluating department policies on body cameras, use of force and others. Freeman said some Burlingtonians don't trust the commission to hold cops accountable, a sentiment that was palpable during a recent public forum on the proposal. Callers said the commission is part of a broken system that let the three Burlington cops at the center of the protests skate by with light punishments.

"It was not that every single member of the commission stood idle; they just weren't given the authority to hold these officers accountable for their actions," Burlington resident Oskar Flemer said. "There's zero recourse for the community."

Others suggested that the police commission is inherently political because the partisan city council appoints its members. Under the council-approved model, seven social justice organizations would submit applications to the city council and mayor for approval.

Once it's set up, the board would have the first crack at investigating complaints. The police chief could make recommendations during that process but would only have control over the investigation if the board first declined to initiate one. Even then, the chief wouldn't have the final say, as the board could vacate the chief's decision.

Weinberger's plan would work in the reverse order: The chief would follow up on a complaint and consult with police commissioners, who could perform their own investigation if they were unsatisfied with the chief's recommended discipline. The seven-person panel would need five votes to overturn the chief's decision.

The discussion comes at a politically fraught moment for Weinberger. Just last week, Seven Days revealed that he knew his former police chief had created a fake Twitter account to mock a critic. Some city councilors have since said that the mayor has lost credibility on police oversight matters in light of the revelation.

"The chief on their own, or the mayor on their own, is not a good way to ensure accountability," Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) told Seven Days last week. "It's an example of why we need [more] sets of eyes looking at these types of issues."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has also endorsed the council-passed plan. Jay Diaz, a senior staff attorney with the organization, said Weinberger's proposal sounds too much like the status quo.

"If the police department continues to be the entity that has almost total authority to police itself," there is no accountability, he said. "To do it the way Mayor Weinberger has proposed, it really cuts the community out."

Weinberger, however, said he thinks the council's model cuts the chief out of the equation. He agrees that the top cop shouldn't have unchecked power but said that giving the control board so much say would be "untested" and "risky."

Weinberger was pleased that the council accepted some amendments to the proposal — such as one that would allow the police chief to give input during investigations — but said the changes didn't go far enough. As passed, the language will make it more difficult to recruit a new chief and retain current officers, the mayor said.

"[Officers] will be very concerned about working under a system where their careers are being decided not by a chief that has been trained" but by a citizen board, Weinberger said in a recent interview.

"We are losing officers quickly," he said. "The charter change worsens that problem."

Nine officers have left 1 North Avenue since June, when the council voted to cut the police force from 90 to 74 through attrition. Five of those departing cops mentioned the council's efforts to "defund the police" in exit interviews, according to Murad.

Tyler Badeau, president of the Burlington Police Officers' Association, declined to comment on the charter change proposal and instead authorized union attorney Rich Cassidy to issue Seven Days a statement about the shrinking roster.

"This reduction in force ... has seriously eroded officer morale, which will make it more difficult to retain good people," the statement reads. "Public safety, more than any other issue, including civilian oversight, is our primary concern."

Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) said that the new charter language would "over-police the police" and put undue pressure on cops, who are often forced to make split-second decisions. Officers who make mistakes would be disciplined by a board with no firsthand policing experience, and "I cannot support that," Paulino said at last week's council meeting.

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) lamented that her colleagues didn't take more time to review police oversight boards in other cities. She said the council completely dismissed concerns from the police commission, which is majority nonwhite.

"I'm actually quite sad ... that we are passing something that is so divisive when I don't think that it needed to be this way," Shannon said during the meeting.

The council still has some time to find common ground. The control board proposal will be discussed at two public hearings in January, before the March 2 vote. The ballot language can be altered until January 25.

Freeman, who uses they/them pronouns, said they were inspired by the sheer number of people who have already voiced support for the charter change. To Freeman, it indicates that Burlingtonians are ready for a new form of accountability.

"Regardless of what happens, the civic participation, the people raising their voice and calling for what they need — it's just been incredible," Freeman said. But ultimately, they continued, creating a control board "is not only appropriate, but necessary and essential."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Policing the Police"