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Can Burlington city leaders find common ground on policing policy?

Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 5:39 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The death of George Floyd in May 2020 started a nationwide conversation on policing. Burlington was no exception.

One year ago, protesters demanded the city improve oversight of its police officers and be more transparent with the public.

A new resolution at City Hall tackles those issues.

City officials and the City Council are trying to find common ground on police oversight. This new resolution would give the Burlington Police Commission more say when it comes to citizen complaints and officer discipline. The main objective is to improve trust between police and the people.

Protestors occupied Battery Park in Burlington for more than a month last year looking for increased oversight on policing. That spurred the City Council to attempt a change in the city’s charter creating a board of citizens that would have the authority to discipline officers accused of misconduct. The board would also have had the ability to fire an officer, reduce their rank or suspend them, and would be able to investigate a range of complaints occurring in the police department.

But Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed it, saying it would continue the dismantling of the Burlington Police Department and compromise the city’s ability to ensure public safety.

Now, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee is proposing a resolution to give the existing police commission increased powers of police oversight, which does not require voters’ approval.

The proposal is for the city attorney to draft a new ordinance by November which would give the police commission the ability to manage citizen complaints of police conduct.

It would allow the commission to:

  • Review all civilian complaints of alleged police misconduct
  • Have complete access to department documentation of the incident including documents and videos
  • Request that the chief investigate incidents or assign an independent investigator
  • Recommend officer discipline to the chief

If the police chief and commission cannot agree on discipline or remediation, the case goes before a board that will make a decision. The mayor will sit on that board along with some city councilors and others.

Progressive City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, who is on the Public Safety Committee, says this is an important step but there is still work to do in terms of changing the city’s charter in the future.

“I think that this is good both for the community in terms of having a chance to push that accountability but also for the police department in terms of building back trust and just for internal issues that may be happening,” Hightower said.

This resolution still needs to clear two committees before it reaches the full council for a vote.

Of course, another element of police reform in the city is the council’s vote to cap the number of officers at 74.

But by all accounts, morale is low on the force and its numbers have now fallen below that cap to just 68.

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