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Who should oversee and discipline Burlington Police?

Published: Dec. 8, 2020 at 5:08 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington City Council is delaying its vote on what will go on the March ballot when it comes to police oversight and discipline until at least next week. Our Dom Amato breaks down what led to the decision and when we’ll learn what Burlington voters will be deciding on in March.

At the City Council meeting Monday night, more than 130 people signed up to speak their minds on the changes to the city’s charter. Most focused on who should have the power to discipline police.

Most of those people support an independent community control board. It would be made up of seven local people with different backgrounds. There is no role for the police chief in this proposal.

But the city’s police commission, made up of members appointed by the City Council, says this sort of civilian oversight is too big for Burlington. There are about 28 actionable complaints against Burlington Police per year, resulting in only four to five investigations.

The police commission also believes any major changes to discipline would be difficult to enforce due to the police union contract. That contract is up in 2022, so Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood says any immediate changes need to be negotiated.

“An employer is required to bargain the terms and conditions of employment of employees, so if you want to change how you want to do discipline to folks, that is bargainable,” Blackwood said.

The decision on how to move forward was put on hold until a special meeting next Monday. That will be one of the last times the City Council can debate as the time is ticking to get this charter change question on the Town Meeting Day ballot.

Monday night, Mayor Miro Weinberger offered another idea. He said the proposal on the table-- as is-- is problematic and may not have success moving forward.

He suggests that rather than creating a new board, the oversight and authority would be given to the police commission to review complaints against officers and have a role in officer discipline. He proposes the mayor also have input on these decisions.

The chief would still have a role in all of this, too, but the police commission would make the final decision if the commission and chief disagree on punishment.

“It’s a problem that we have a system where only the police chief has any authority over discipline. Even the mayor is walled off over any formal authority over officer discipline. I think that has created distrust. I think anytime you have sort of absolute power, that doesn’t work great in our democratic system,” said Weinberger, D-Burlington.

The mayor says he is not sure common ground will be found with his proposal and the City Council and voters may have to decide the outcome in March.

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