An online petition charging that Burlington police used excessive force in response to civil disobedience in late July is being circulated in anticipation of the next meeting of the Burlington Police Commission. About 200 people had signed as of Sept. 17.
The petition, addressed to Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Burlington City Council as well as the commission, calls for an independent investigation to answer questions that have arisen since police officers used pepper balls, rubber pellets and pepper spray in dealing with protesters who blocked buses at the Hilton Hotel on July 29.
In an email seeking support, Jonathan Leavitt, an activist who was struck by rubber pellets during the incident, called the upcoming meeting “our last chance to come together as Vermonters and demand the independent investigation and accountability.” Much of the wording in the petition was part of Leavitt’s statement to the commission at its August meeting.
Leavitt charges that a “preliminary after action report” issued by the Police Department in August “is marked by many factual errors and misrepresentation and a sheer lack of accountability that many feared would be the result of having an organization with such a vested interest investigate themselves.”
The petition questions the appropriateness of the police response, the agencies involved, the scope of police training, policies on the use of non-lethal force, and reports that officers removed their badges and used munitions that were beyond their “expiration date.”
It also criticizes Mayor Weinberger for endorsing the actions of police before an inquiry began, and says that Police Chief Michael Schirling made “erroneous statements” on Vermont Public Radio.
The petition claims that protesters exercised “restraint,” while police “in riot gear curiously broke from Burlington’s culture, not attempting to arrest anyone, preferring to use pepper spray, push and throw peaceful Burlingtonians to the ground.”
A related Facebook page says that the investigation may “die in committee” without an independent inquiry. “The BPD report being dropped during happy hour on a Friday evening and the Police Commission being scheduled by City Hall to fall on a hotly contested primary night would seem to corroborate this,” it notes. “There’s a marked irony in this coming from a Mayor who ran on transparency and an engaged public process.”
Last week, Police Commission Chair Jerome O’Neil provided a brief report to the City Council on the dispute. Additional information is being sought by the commission prior to its Sept. 27 meeting.
Four members of the City Council have joined in the call for an independent investigation. In a letter to Weinberger, they argue that answering more questions surrounding the incident will “help build public trust in our police force.”
The online petition is posted at Change.org. The after action report is available at the Burlington Police Department website. The commission will meet at 6 p.m., in police headquarters on North Avenue.