Journey to the job: How Burlington police went 2 years without a chief

Published: Jan. 30, 2022 at 7:50 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2022 at 8:26 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - On Monday, the Burlington City Council will vote on the mayor’s pick for police chief, Acting Chief Jon Murad.

For more than two years, the Burlington Police Department has operated without a permanent chief, and the decision to fill the position now lies in the hands of the City Council.

“Today, I am announcing that I am appointing Jon Murad to serve as Burlington’s next police chief,” Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, said in a press conference Thursday.

Murad was sworn in at the Burlington Police Department in 2018. After working for the NYPD and spending time in the private sector, Murad returned to his home state to serve as Burlington’s deputy chief, second in command to then-police Chief Brandon del Pozo.

“I missed working with cops,” Murad told WCAX News after the ceremony.

Just a year into Murad’s tenure, the department was reeling from a social media scandal. In July 2019, del Pozo lied to reporters about using a fake Twitter account to troll a city critic.

“I had told the mayor what I had done and gave me some time to process that and talk to people. The next day I was put on leave,” del Pozo told WCAX News that December.

By then, the reins were turned over to Interim Chief Jan Wright. But, just hours after that announcement, Wright admitted to using Facebook for a similar purpose. Murad was made acting chief amid the mess.

“I hope this incident makes clear that is not what we expect from city officials,” Weinberger told constituents.

But, that didn’t last long. Weinberger recruited Jennifer Morrison, the former deputy chief in Burlington and chief of police in Colchester.

Her stint as interim chief came with a new set of challenges, the onset of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

“It is horrifying, and it is a perversion of everything that American police are meant to do,” Morrison said in May 2020.

By June, Morrison stepped away to care for her ailing husband and never came back, once again turning the job over to Murad.

By the end of August, Black Lives Matter protestors occupied Burlington’s Battery Park for weeks, demanding three officers accused of excessive force be fired.

Soon after, the City Council passed a resolution to cut the department by 30%, and for the last 20 months, Murad has vocally opposed the move.

“We are going to start getting closer to that 74 number than I feel comfortable with, quicker than I think we want,” Murad said.

Since May 2021, the search for a permanent chief was on. Eight months later, the mayor named his pick for the position.

“The community and the agency need to know that we have a stable leadership, that we have a police force that is stabilizing,” Murad told WCAX News Thursday.

Progressives have already voiced opposition to Murad.

“What I’ve seen from Acting Chief Murad is a resistance to the transformative changes that we need to make,” Joe Magee, P-Burlington City Council, said.

It’s not clear what will happen if the council votes no, but Progressives are calling on the mayor to reopen the search for other candidates.

Ahead of Monday’s highly anticipated police chief vote, Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, and other community leaders organized a town hall with Murad. New North End residents were invited to join the conversation.

During the hour and a half virtual meeting, Murad answered questions about public transparency, mental health calls, racial disparities and implementing the recommendations from the department’s CNA report. He also talked about the impact of inadequate staffing.

“We are working on a plan that actually puts officers and/or community service officers, CSO’s, on the marketplace on a recurring basis each day. When we do that, we are at a place where we are robbing Peter to pay Paul every single day,” Murad said. “If I have resources in the downtown core, then I don’t have resources in the New North End, and I don’t have resources in the South End. I don’t have enough to spread across the whole city. When you have four officers on a shift, you cannot do that.”

Murad says the department is struggling to recruit and retain officers as some retire and others want to work elsewhere. There are currently 60 officers, well below the new cap of 87. And he says he expects another three to five will leave within the next couple of months.

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