Burlington Police Commission rejects calls for independent inquiry on July protest response

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling. VTD/Josh Larkin

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling. VTD File Photo/Josh Larkin

After two contentious meetings, the Burlington Police Commission has voted unanimously to tell the City Council that no further investigation of a July 29 showdown in which police used pepper balls, rubber pellets and pepper spray “would be constructive.”

In an August letter to Mayor Miro Weinberger and the commission following the incident, four council members joined local activists and civil libertarians in calling for an independent investigation to answer lingering questions and “help build public trust in our police force.” Among the questions was whether all means of dialogue had been exhausted, and why rubber bullets and pepper spray were used if no arrests were made.

In response the commission called for more information. Only three responses arrived via email in a month. However, last Thursday more testimony was provided in person by about a dozen residents, including several who were present at or directly involved in the protests during a conference of New England and Eastern Canadian leaders at the Hilton Hotel. Many who spoke reiterated the call for an independent investigation.

Police Commission Chair Jerome O’Neill suggested “what happened that day was an unfortunate combination of circumstances.” But he also assigned some of the blame to a small group “who wanted to cause trouble.”

The commissioners agreed that the department should look into relevant policies in comparable communities and continue to encourage “peaceful protests.” But they felt that any further investigation would not be “helpful” or yield much new information.

As O’Neill and four other commissioners labored over the wording of a statement that is likely to reach the City Council at its Oct. 15 meeting, more than 20 people expressed their dissatisfaction with the process by walking out. Lingering outside police headquarters, councilors, protesters and dissatisfied residents expressed their dismay about the official response.

A key objection presented in public testimony is that the after-action report offered by the department in August was not accurate or inclusive. Critics have pointed out that no interviews or comments from anyone outside the department were sought or incorporate into that document.

At the most recent commission session Robert Appel, director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, expressed a widely voiced view that “without a true independent, dispassionate review of what occurred that day” trust in the police will be undermined.

On the other hand several people, including representatives from the Burlington Business Association and Church Street Marketplace, also spoke up to defend the reputation of local police at a moment when they face serious criticism. Although the department’s supporters did not address the protest or subsequent report, they expressed the view that many residents have not lost trust in the police.

Appel pointed to an unresolved issue: why officers were deployed in what has been described as “riot gear.” Police Chief Michael Schirling has stated that the decision to use officers equipped with shields, batons, pepper spray and 37mm rubber pellet launchers was made by Lt. Arthur Cyr, who leads the department’s crisis negotiation unit. This “crowd control team” was on duty inside the Hilton for hours before the confrontation.

The situation escalated when Cyr attempted to arrest a protester. He claims that in the process someone attempted to touch his duty belt, one of several details that has been difficult to confirm. Unable to complete the arrest, Cyr held onto three protesters who had linked arms. When the person he wanted to arrest got away, Cyr was pulled along, the police report states.

Meanwhile Officer Nathan Harvey, reportedly struggling with Jonathan Leavitt and another protester he wanted to arrest, tripped on a sign and fell over. Harvey’s helmet came off and his pellet launcher hit the ground. Seeing a fellow officer fall and his launcher in the open, Officer Tyler Badeau fired a rubber pellet round at Leavitt. Leavitt says he was already walking away with his hands raised.

Despite confusion about what actually happened, Appel noted that within days of the incident both Schirling and Weinberger “issued public statements which at least I had perceived to be saying the police acted reasonably. I don’t know how you square that with an after the fact review that is internal.”

Leavitt expressed growing skeptical about the commission’s response. On Thursday he presented a petition with more than 200 signatures requesting an independent investigation and asked “that our civil liberties not be deliberated by the same police department which shot us.”

Three City Council members were in the audience. Progressive Rachel Siegel asked the commission “to go the extra mile and request an independent investigation.” Independent Sharon Bushor agreed, and still wanted to know more about why the response “deviated from past practices.”

Council President Joan Shannon did not speak during the meeting, but subsequently explained that the commission does not see a meaningful focus for further action. She added that it would continue to review relevant policies.

In explaining his decision, Commissioner William Bryant pointed out that various efforts to communicate with demonstrators prior to the incident were rebuffed. Although he admitted that those protesting had no obligation to share information, he nevertheless suggested that “the burden was on the protesters to have better communication.” Bryant also felt that “any show of authority might have escalated the problem.”

Philip LaVigne suggested that the protesters had broken an unwritten “deal to get along with the cops” during civil disobedience actions. Commissioner LaVigne said he was also “troubled that no arrests were made.”

Sandy Baird, a Burlington attorney who supports the call for an outside review, had the same question but a different analysis.

“Why weren’t they arrested?” Baird asked. “What’s the deal? Why is nobody answering that question?” The department claims that shooting with less lethal weapons was lawful, she points out, but “they didn’t mention one violent act on the part of the protesters because there was none. My question remains, why weren’t they arrested?”

For Commissioner Paul Hochenadel, the main issue facing them was, “What would we discover that we haven’t heard” if an outside investigate was pursued? Commissioner Sarah Kenney felt the same, adding that she “can’t imagine who could do an independent investigation. What new information would they find? I don’t think that’s the best use of time.”

Genese Grill, a writer and critical thinking teacher, offered her own answers in a thoughtful statement presented to the commission. “The value of an objective analysis and the value of a legal investigation is that the spin of a particular narrative can be examined from other sides by gathering evidence and counter evidence, and allegations can be examined for their truth value,” she argued.

“In the case of this (after action) report, we have a narrative that attempts to paint a small group of protesters as a dangerous group who planned ahead of time to use aggressive and violent tactics on the police,” Grill said. She then challenged several assertions embedded in the official narrative.

After the public finished O’Neill led the commissioners in wordcrafting for its response to the City Council. He also addressed those involved in the incident. “You didn’t make their (police) job any easier,” O’Neill said, with the added warning that the state’s attorney could still look into the matter.

Blogger Dylan Kelley concludes on Vermont Commons that the message to activists is that “peaceful dissent and disobedience will be put down with violence and brutality. Anybody getting in the way of the Weinberger, Shumlin, or any other powers that be, has only themselves to blame.”

In their Aug. 21 letter to the mayor and commission Bushor and Siegel, along with Councilors Vince Brennan and Max Tracy pointed out that they have requested Chief Schirling’s presence at a council meeting to answer questions about the incident. “Unfortunately, neither he nor any representative from the Police Department attended” the only August meeting, they noted.

Some questions raised in August have been answered since then. A few have led to recommendations for policy changes. But the deadline has passed on the letter’s request for a council presentation in September. On Sept. 24, an annual report from the Police Commission by O’Neill was dropped from the agenda at the last minute.

Greg Guma

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19 Comments on "Burlington Police Commission rejects calls for independent inquiry on July protest response"

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3 years 8 months ago

Once again the official response is “policy changes”, and not one elected official or police force member has taken any action to protect the public from police brutality – aka Shumlin and the killing of Macadam.

Jim Busch
3 years 8 months ago
Here is some questions that I have not heard the press ask nor anyone answer: 1) What would an independent investigation prove or do? 2) Who would make up the independent team that would make both sides happy regardless of their opinion/outcome? 3) If fault was found on either side, what could/would be done? What is the end goal? I heard this answer from 3 attorneys and 2 judges: None or Nothing(the short answer boiled down) to all 3 questions with the resultant would be a “policy change” and money spent. That is all. The police commission is already stated… Read more »
Tiki Archambeau
3 years 8 months ago
“In response the commission called for more information. Only three responses arrived via email in a month.” Um, the commissions’ email addresses are not publicly listed. Couple of problems with how all of this is going down: 1) The police department’s report is clearly biased and factually inaccurate (just wait until you see how much “threatening” milk shows up at the next protest). While having Schirling and the mayor remain loyal to their employees is admirable, it comes at the expense of future cooperation. 2) The commission appointees are cozier with the police department than with the community they serve.… Read more »
Jim Busch
3 years 8 months ago
Tiki,says..”Um, the commissions’ email addresses are not publicly listed.” There is another invention that predates email….US Postal Service and a Telephone. The Burlington Police Commission’s contact information is right on the Burlington Police Dept’s Website. Also, Jerry O’neil, Commish chair, can reached at his practice. Here is the link to their contact .doc http://www.bpdvt.org/HomePage%20Docs/BURLINGTON%20POLICE%20COMMISSION%202012.doc “2) The commission appointees are cozier with the police department than with the community they serve. It’s even questionable if their mission includes oversight. They serve infinite terms based solely on political networking, a recipe for cronyism.” The Commission is made up of a personal injury… Read more »
Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago
Jim sure I’d be glad to tell you what you’ve asked for in your above post. No “conspiracy” here, just badly needed change. The “Vicitim’s” Advocate IS a burlington police officer and for you to present it as such to the public here on vtdigger is ALMOST a case and point example of how dishonest the Burlington Police are allowed to be. I am compelled to forever document such misrepresentations of “Advocacy” for any “Victim” in any town, let alone the one I live in. I think Mayor Miro should follow Anaheim’s Mayor Tom Tait’s example. Time to morve forward… Read more »
Jim Busch
3 years 8 months ago
Christian, Please point out who the “police officer” is that is a member of the commission: Jerry O’Neill, Chair Bill Bryant, Vice-Chair Sarah Kenney Paul Hochanadel Philip LaVigne ???? To the best of knowledge, ALL were nominated by a mayor and appointed by the city council. And none of them have ever been a police officer. And in your mind what would “your” commission have done differently???? Answer…..Nothing The most that is allowed by state statute is fire or change policy. That is all. Now a better point would be, Why is does not the State AG do anything? Answer;Election… Read more »
Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago
“And in your mind what would “your” commission have differently???” You know Jim with each post of yours I see nothing but proof of either you being mislead or misinformed, OR your attempts at misleading others. Do I have a “commission?” Nope sorry again, you must be thinking of someone else. Marry Macallaster was the “Vicitims Advocate” when I needed help and her office is or was AT THE POLICE STATION. And yes, she was a Burlington police officer. Naming the individuals above is pointless as long as they’ve done absolutely NOTHING to help me. Your commission is only as… Read more »
Jim Busch
3 years 8 months ago

“Then something can be done. ”

Also, Christian, the “conspiracy” comment is called sarcasm.

Jim Busch
3 years 8 months ago

Christian Noll,

It seems you do not comprehend what is being discussed, nor what is written in the article.

Who is Mary MaCallaster?
I do not see her listed as a member of the 2012 Burlington Police Commission. Nor do I see where she is relevant to the article.

Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago
Mr Busch, “It seems you do not comprehend what is being discussed, nor what is written in the article.” It must me then. I probably just don’t understand or can’t comprehend it. Ms MaCallaser was the “Victim’s” Advocate at the Burlington Police Station in 2008 and 2009. Is she gone? Is there someone new now? It is “relevant” because YOU ASKED. The point being our current commission to provide objective, unbiased and fair oversight has failed. Its failed with me and hundreds of other peaceful Burlington residents. It needs to be changed. Additionally there needs to be consequences for officers… Read more »
Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago

The police “investigating” the police. hummmm.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The police are allowed to not tell the truth as long as the public allows them to do so.

If we are supplying the police with all sorts of military munitions, equipment and training, at some point they will be used regardless of how appropriate.

Tom Karov
3 years 8 months ago

They, BPD and Weinberger hope this will all (just go away)
I hope the People of Burlington will refuse to allow this.The whole thing stinks..

jim busch
3 years 8 months ago

Mr. Noll,

You are still rambling and ranting on about this Ms. McCallaster who is NOT a member of the commission which is the subject of Mr Guma’s article and their decision.
If you can discuss the current commission then this discussion is over.

Now back to the article, the only avenue in VT for the protestors now is to get our inept State AG to do something.( Don’t hold your breath) Well being an election year, maybe we need a new AG?

Christian Noll
3 years 7 months ago

What’s the matter?

Cat got your tongue?

The meeting at City Hall was cancelled due to the horrific storm we had.

When is the resechedule date Mr Busch?

Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago
Mr. Busch, Your exact words were: “If you can discuss the current commission then this discussion is over.” Nice Freudian Slip Jim. At least you’re able to show your true colors. While I agree that there is still an election for the AG, the militarization of the police under the guise of “Homeland Security” is troubling and my remarks above have everything to do with the article. There is no “ramble” nor “rant” here. There is no “conspiracy.” Just someone who’s studied the police a little bit more than your self. Its interesting to note that someone on a “commission”… Read more »
Christian Noll
3 years 8 months ago

Greg Guma you’ve done an outstanding job in covering this.

Please stick with it.

If both meetings were that contentious, you know you’re on to something.

Nice work and please keep at it.

Amy Preston
3 years 7 months ago
The reason police officers are allowed to assault/abuse innocent members of the general public without fear of consequence is that Bill Sorrell, Vermont’s long running Attorney General THAT MOST EVERYONE IN THE STATE JUST RE-ELECTED, has a long-standing stance AGAINST CRIMINAL PROSECUTION OF POLICE OFFICERS DEMONSTRATING UNNECESSARY FORCE. Just Google the phrase, “Bill Sorrell Police Misconduct” and see what you come up with. THERE IS NO REGULATORY AGENCY RESPONSIBLE FOR ADDRESSING/RESOLVING POLICE MISCONDUCT. The State’s Attorney General won’t touch these cases and this sets a precedent around the state. Other attorneys will not prosecute them either and THE LEGISLATURE WILL… Read more »
Charles Samsonow
3 years 5 months ago
Dear Mr. Noll I like your common sense approach on resolving our lacking law enforcement policies – when the law – enforcers – cross there own line. We do need an independent group or organization specifically over looking and regulating police behavior only. There records should never be expunged as to track there mental path. You definitely have the educational background for it – have you considered starting something yourself? Maybe we as average citizens could see light at the end of the injustice tunnel and police would be able to hold there head up again ! Its a tough… Read more »
Christian Noll
3 years 5 months ago
Mr Samsonow thank you for your remarks. “have you considered starting something yourself?” I can only report police misconduct myself. For there to be a real, independent, unaffiliated police oversight committee, there needs to real investigatory powers vested to the group which would allow for unobstructed investigation and discovery. The committee must also have the ability to recommend disciplinary action should the case so warrant. The police will fight tooth and nail to prevent this. What does that tell you? The current police in Burlington don’t even adhere to Vermont’s Access to Public Record laws. I asked to purchase copies… Read more »
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