Burlington cops accused of unnecessary force; bodycam video released

(WCAX)
Published: May. 3, 2019 at 9:33 AM EDT
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Questions about the use of force by Burlington police officers. A pair of lawsuits against the Burlington Police Department allege some officers used excessive force two different times.

We now have video of the two confrontations, both caught on body cameras worn by officers.

The two lawsuits are completely separate from one another. The incidents in question happened last fall.

In the early morning hours on Sept. 8, Burlington Police Ofc. Joseph Corrow says he saw Mabior Jok, 35, punch another man in the face on Main Street in Burlington. According to court paperwork, Corrow attempted to arrest Jok but the man backed up and raised his arms. Corrow said he feared he was going to be assaulted and brought Jok to the ground, knocking him unconscious.

The lawsuit alleges bystanders told police Jok was not the one involved in the fight and he was trying to break it up.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo says the officer knew Jok and knew him to be violent, but says there was a better way the officer could have handled the situation.

"We explicitly concluded by holding open the possibility that there was a safer way to respond to this incident, that we expect our officers to engage with people in the safest way possible and we found that not using the proper tactics in responding may have created an unnecessary risk for all involved," del Pozo said.

Jok was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Those charges were eventually dropped.

The chief did not mention any suspensions for Ofc. Corrow.

A separate incident happened hours later after a fight at a Burlington bar. That lawsuit alleges Burlington Police Sgt. Jason Bellavance shoved Jeremie Meli, which led him to hit his head against a wall. Court documents say the victim continues to suffer from the injury today. Meli's two brothers were also at the scene and they, too, have filed lawsuits alleging excessive force and emotional distress.

Chief del Pozo says Bellavance was suspended without pay but could not say for how long due to city policy.

When asked about the use of force culture at the BPD, del Pozo says the data shows the highest use of force happens downtown around bar closing time.

"I think that officers at bar closing are facing a lot of bar fights, they're facing a lot of rapidly developing situations. So, I will say if our commitments are tested at any one time and place, it's probably on the busy bar nights where there's a lot going on and officers have to act quickly," del Pozo said.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George reviewed both incidents and did not find any criminal wrongdoing.

Del Pozo says his department has a lawful use of force policy, and the most up-to-date training. He says bringing the culture, training and policy together is a challenge, but it's a goal he has for the Burlington Police Department.