Vermont chiefs wary of Burlington’s police discipline proposal

Published: Dec. 16, 2020 at 12:40 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 16, 2020 at 4:57 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As the city of Burlington moves forward with a proposal to give a board of citizens the authority to discipline and fire police officers, including the chief, police chiefs in other jurisdictions worry that could negatively impact other departments in the state.

WCAX News spoke with Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete and Barre City Police Chief Tom Bombardier for their reactions to the police discipline resolution, which the Burlington City Council approved 7-5 on Monday night, advancing it to public hearings in January.

Peete says morale is dropping in departments across the state as officers watch things unfold in the Queen City.

“A lot of officers are looking at what happens in Burlington. The perception is what happens in Burlington is going to be mimicked in other places,” Peete said. “There’s general concern and I think officers are wanting to have these discussions and we want to do what we can to work on trust and legitimacy issues, but there’s great concern because it feels like the context in which this is happening— that it’s not going to be positive toward law enforcement.”

Peete thinks there could be a ripple effect of unintended consequences if Burlington goes through with this new committee. He believes it could prompt officers to leave the Burlington Police Department sooner than anticipated and dampen recruitment efforts.

The Burlington Police Department recently said there are currently 81 officers on the force. Once the headcount drops to 76, department officials say they’ll eliminate midnight patrols.

Peete says that would be a liability risk and it could force Burlington Police “to look for aid from other agencies who may not be in the position to help.”

Over in Barre City, Police Chief Tim Bombardier believes the plan is not well thought out.

“Decisions that involve officer discipline and employment must be made based on sound investigations that provide evidence and facts, not public opinion, emotions or individuals’ perceptions,” Bombardier said.

Peete says Vermont officers are willing to have conversations about racial justice and equity in policing, and there needs to be a seat for them at the table.

“So, I hope and pray that we understand our emotions but we move forward with rational thought with everyone because I think there is common ground and everyone wants what’s best for our cities and our societies and that’s what we have to hope and bank on,” Peete said.

WCAX also reached out to Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad for comment. He did not speak specifically to the City Council’s vote to advance the community police control board, but he did praise the Burlington Police Commission for being a “diverse, dedicated body of involved community members” that is a “strong, engaged, influential entity.” Murad said they are working on ways to strengthen the police commission further by giving them more input and responsibility on a variety of issues.

The Burlington charter change proposal will now head to a public hearing in January, which is part of the procedure to put an item on the March ballot. It must also be approved by the Legislature.

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