In a “historic” public forum, about 250 Burlington community members called for a cut to the Burlington Police Department budget, including a 30% decrease in officer headcount.
At Monday night’s Board of Finance meeting, residents asked the board to not approve a budget until a list of demands from the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance are met. The public forum lasted nearly six hours.
After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd late last month, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have occurred in cities around the country, including Burlington. Demonstrators have demanded that cities defund police departments around the country.
The Vermont alliance is calling for a 30% reduction in uniformed officers. The Burlington department has 93 officers, but is considered fully staffed at 105. Residents also demanded that the city remove officers from city schools and bar law enforcement from responding to truancy calls.
In addition, activists are calling for the firing of Officers Jason Bellavance, Joseph Corrow and Cory Campbell, all of whom are named in federal police brutality lawsuits filed against the city last year by black residents.
Bellavance was suspended for less than three weeks for pushing Jeremie Meli and knocking him unconscious after being called to a late-night altercation in September 2018. Corrow was not disciplined for tackling Mabior Jok in a different incident the same night.
Campbell punched Douglas Kilburn in March 2019, days before Kilburn died. Kilburn’s death was ruled a medical homicide. Attorney General TJ Donovan ruled that Campbell’s use of force was necessary, and Campbell was reprimanded for swearing at Kilburn but not punished for his use of force.
The department disproportionately uses force on black residents, according to a study released by the department late last year.
Activists at Monday’s virtual board of finance meeting also demanded the establishment of an office of equal opportunity that would oversee a new minority-owned business city procurement program.
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Speakers wanted more money for the city’s racial equity, inclusion and belonging program and more city partnerships with minority-owned businesses.
More than 20% — $17.4 million — of the city’s proposed $77.7 million fiscal year 2021 budget is allotted to the department.
A majority of the Minneapolis City Council have expressed support for dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department.
Jabari Jones said that as a black resident, he felt like the demands of the alliance were the “bare minimum” of work that needed to be done.
“I’ve witnessed a level of corruption, brutality, collusion, lack of empathy, rooted in white supremicist culture that takes my breath away,” Jones said.
Resident Kit Andrews said it was possible to make major changes to policing in the city now.
“I know the intent would be to make major fundamental changes in the funding of the police department, and in the overall city budget so that the public is made more safe, and so city social services of all kinds would become much more responsive to citizens’ human needs,” Andrews said.
The city’s police union pushed back on budget cuts in a press release Monday, calling the idea “radical and dangerous.”
“Defunding the Burlington Police Department without a clear path will only put the citizens of our great city at risk by emboldening those that do not care about law, order or community,” the union said.
Weinberger said he was taking the feedback from the public and council as he works to finalize the budget, which he is required by the city charter to propose to the council by June 15.
During a press update Monday, Weinberger said he was open to funding more social workers and others, instead of police.
“The police are who responds when there is no one else to do the job, and if we can find a way to resource, to keep moving in this direction and to find ways to resource other professionals so they can respond instead of the police and perhaps, over time, we could actually need less police, that would be an outcome I would welcome,” he said.
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