The Burlington Police Commission approved changes to the department’s use-of-force policy Tuesday, as hundreds of residents continued to call for cuts to the department’s funding at a continued City Council meeting.
Over 1,000 people signed up for the unprecedented public forum at Monday’s council meeting, which stretched from 7:30 p.m. Monday to 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. The council picked up the public forum at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, with a planned stop at midnight and a plan to restart Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Residents are speaking in support of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance’s demands for a 30% reduction in uniformed officers, the removal of officers from schools and the firing of Officers Jason Bellavance, Cory Campbell and Joe Corrow, all of whom are named in police brutality lawsuits filed by black men.
The alliance is also calling for the city to create a Cultural Empowerment Community Collective, establish an Office of Equal Opportunity and increase funding for the city’s Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging function.
Resident Robert Rice said that the perception of Burlington as a liberal utopia was not the case, especially for black, brown and poor residents. He called for Bellavance, Campbell and Corrow to be fired.
“Even if we didn’t have such examples of police brutality to call upon, the institution of the police still does more harm than good,” he said. “Its purpose is to protect property, not people, and racism is built into the system it exists to perpetuate.”
Francesca Blanchard, a white Ward 1 resident, said that discussions about racial justice were not supposed to be comfortable or convenient.
“I’m a strong advocate for re-allocating a portion of the BPD’s budget into the community to better serve our black and brown members and provide the care, support and equal attention to all,” she said.
Will Lambek, speaking on behalf of Migrant Justice, said that the organization supported the alliance’s demands.
“The City Council cannot say it supports the safety of immigrants and fail to support the safety of black communities,” he said. “These issues are one and the same.”
Weinberger proposed a 10% cut to the department’s budget, including a reduction in the number of officers from 105 to 93, which is the current size of the department as some jobs are vacant.
Some speakers expressed dismay that Weinberger was not in attendance for most of Tuesday’s meeting. Weinberger said before the meeting that he had family commitments and would listen for as long as he could.
Use of Force Policy Revised
The police commission approved the changes to the use of force policy in a 5-1-1 vote. Commissioner Youl Herjok Youl voted no, and Commissioner Mark Hughes voted present after saying he could not vote on the policy since the commission received the final version only hours before the meeting.
The new policy prioritizes de-escalation and requires officers to intervene when they witness a fellow officer use excessive force. Officers also now have an affirmative duty to provide care to those in their custody under the policy.
The use-of-force policy change recommendations came from a special committee established shortly after body camera footage released in conjunction with the filing of the excessive use-of-force lawsuits showed officers pushing and tackling the men.
Commission Chair Jabulani Gamache said that he felt the policy was a step in the right direction, but not perfect.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know if the use of force policy necessarily saves or helps anybody, at the end of the day I feel like it’s reactionary and it allows us to then administer punishment after said thing has happened,” he said.
Commissioner Randall Harp said he thought the policy was an improvement over the current policy and supported it, but said policies by themselves are not enough.
“Policies by themselves can’t hold officers accountable, policies by themselves can’t set department culture, things like that,” he said. “Policies are important to have as a necessary condition for getting officer accountability and getting the behavior you want out of the police force.”