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.