Burlington City Council pushes police accountability measures

Burlington protest
Burlington protest
Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 2:42 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2020 at 6:03 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington City Council Tuesday voted to proceed with developing charter changes to hold police accountable, but it doesn’t go far enough for protesters camped out near the police station for two weeks.

Council voted unanimously to ask the Charter Change Committee to start working to revise the city charter, which currently states only the police chief has the authority to fire an officer. Council wants an update next month. They’re also asking police commission to analyze what would be required to create stronger disciplinary measures regarding excessive force. They want that report by the end of November.

Council voted on the resolution during an emergency meeting on Tuesday.

The council’s six Progressives called for the meeting last Friday in a written statement. In it, they said they are “disturbed by the deep inequities perpetuated by our city government.” They said residents have “communicated to the city that actions of the Burlington Police Department constitute excessive force and unprofessional policing behavior that they no longer wish to see in their city and do not accept as appropriate behavior from their police department.” They also invited the leaders of the protest in Battery Park to speak before the council.

Since last Tuesday, protesters have been sleeping overnight at the park and marching across the city at 6:30 every evening. They are demanding the city fire three police officers accused of excessive force, but city leaders say they can’t.

The three officers-- Jason Bellavance, Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow-- were ultimately cleared of the allegations. City officials say those cases have already been resolved after being reviewed internally and by the state’s attorney’s office. They say they cannot be reopened without costing the city millions of dollars due to the police union contract.

Eileen Blackwood, the city’s attorney, reiterated that it’s out of the city’s hands. At Tuesday’s meeting, Blackwood read aloud the clause in the police union contract that legally prevents the city from taking any further action. It states that once the measure of discipline is determined and imposed, the city shall not increase it unless new facts or circumstances become known.

“The fact that certain folks like the City Council didn’t know about the incidents and now disagree with the chief is not a new fact or circumstance under the rule of double jeopardy,” she said. “Under the city’s charter, the police chief has the authority to hire or fire police officers subject to an appeal to the board of the police commission. Neither the mayor nor the council has the authority to hire or fire police officers.”

“I’m incredibly disappointed by this public display of the same racist policies that are used to oppress Black and brown bodies being paraded around as if we cannot question them at all,” said Jess Laporte, one of the protest leaders present at the meeting.

Other protesters who spoke during public comments said “case closed” is not an acceptable response.

“Does money truly matter more to you than BIPOC feeling safe and welcomed in this community?” Sarah Noel asked. “Will it take another body dropping before you take action against the violent cops who patrol these streets?”

“I recognize that it’s going to be difficult. I am terrified of a backlash from the police union. And I know that we need to do this anyway,” said Sophie Casel.

The Progressive councilors agree. In their letter, they wrote: “The administration’s stance has been that there is nothing they can do; that this is a settled matter. We refuse to accept this.”

Progressive councilor Brian Pine says council understands protesters' concerns but change won’t happen overnight.

“The meat of the resolution is really directed at looking forward and looking ahead on how we can make changes to prevent this type of thing from happening. It doesn’t as much address what has happened in the past and that is what the protesters in Battery Park are demanding that we address what has happened in the past. That’s the most critical focus because that’s the demand today,” he said.

Pine also says ending qualified immunity will give the city the ability to hold officers who use excessive force accountable but some leaders don’t agree with getting rid of it.

The resolution that passed was introduced by the Democrats on council but the Progressives are also drafting a proposal.

In their letter, they wrote that they’re committed to “proposing a Charter Change that would allow for a publicly accountable body, rather than the Police Chief, to have the authority to make final disciplinary decisions in use of force cases and other gross misconduct." They say their policy would require universal use of body cameras and timely release of body camera footage in cases of misconduct and use of force, and mandate stronger performance evaluation standards. Lastly, they say they will not support a future union contract with the Burlington Police Officers Association if it does not fundamentally shift how officers are held accountable. Council president Max Tracy says the next contract goes into effect in 2022.

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