Politics

In Burlington’s Ward 7, police union issues rare endorsement as public safety remains a top issue

Burlington police officers listen as Jon Murad was named as the city's new police chief by Mayor Miro Weinberger on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. The union that represents Burlington police officers offered a rare endorsement of a candidate for City Council in Ward 7. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In an irregular move, the union that represents Burlington police officers has endorsed a candidate for City Council in Ward 7, one of three hotly contested races in the city’s March 1 election.

The Burlington Police Officers’ Association last week gave its backing to Democrat Aleczander Stith, who is running for the Ward 7 seat in the March 1 election against Olivia Taylor and incumbent Ali Dieng, who are both independents.

In a letter sent to Ward 7 residents explaining its endorsement, the union said Stith “wants public safety to be a priority.” 

“Stith believes the complex and politically charged issue of public safety is best addressed through composed, analytical, consensus-seeking discourse,” the letter said. 

The statement did not mention Stith’s outspoken support for acting Chief Jon Murad, who was backed by the union in his bid to serve as the department’s permanent head. (The City Council voted not to confirm Murad late last month.)

As of now, Stith is the only candidate the union has backed for the March 1 election. The organization first endorsed city council candidates last year, when it supported independent Central District candidate Tiki Archambeau and Councilor Mark Barlow, I-North District, according to Padric Hartnett, the union’s treasurer. 

In a Facebook group for residents of the New North End, the neighborhood where Ward 7 is located, Stith wrote that the union’s endorsement did not mean that he would “commit any particular votes” to the organization, “nor did they ask.”

To earn the union’s endorsement, a candidate must approach the organization, Hartnett said, and the group is “willing to meet and speak with candidates from any party.”

That includes candidates in the race for Ward 1, which could have bigger implications for future city council policing decisions than Ward 7. In that contest, Democrat Rob Gutman is challenging incumbent Progressive Zoraya Hightower.

Gutman has pledged to support Murad’s appointment if elected, while Hightower voted alongside her caucus in rejecting the acting chief.

The police union also has not issued an endorsement in Ward 8, another race where Progressives and Democrats will duke it out for control of the council. In a Facebook post last month, the union implored residents of the student-stacked ward who “feel public safety has materially deteriorated” to run for the seat, after Progressive Councilor Jane Stromberg announced she wouldn’t seek a second term.

The battle for Ward 8 features Democrat Hannah King and Progressive Ali House. While House has publicly denounced hiring Murad as permanent police chief, King has declined to state her position on the issue, saying she wants to talk further with Ward 8 residents and Murad himself.

The police union’s endorsement struck at least one resident of the precinct as racist, since Dieng, who is Black, has on multiple occasions voted in line with the police union’s stance. Therefore, according to Ward 7 resident Ryon Frink, the union should not view Dieng as a target to be ousted by Stith, who is white, based on matters of policy. 

“When (the Burlington Police Officers’ Association) says ‘public safety’ what they mean is white,” Frink tweeted on Monday. “Let (Stith and the Burlington Democratic Party) point out a single meaningful policy difference they have with Ali on policing and public safety.” 

“Costing me more sleep,” commented Melo Grant, who is Black and one of the city’s seven police commissioners. 

Dieng stopped short of endorsing Frink’s point of view. The candidate gave Frink’s four-tweet thread “likes” on the platform, though he told VTDigger in an interview: “I do not want to play the race card.” 

When asked if he thought the union’s Stith endorsement was motivated by racism, Dieng said: “I am the only Black person running for Ward 7, and the letter that they sent is not valid. Ryon or anybody can perceive it in any way that they would like.”

“But at the same time, racism exists within the police department, and the police department is not serving people of color very well,” Dieng continued. “We know that kids are being drugged. We know that, basically, young Black people were treated very badly in the city of Burlington. And as a Black man, I think I have been very consistent.”

In response to Frink’s tweet, Stith told VTDigger that he does differ from Dieng on some policy positions. He pointed to the former mayoral candidate’s two votes last year against raising the number of police officers the city could hire.

At the time, Dieng said at a city council meeting and wrote in a commentary on VTDigger that he rejected the officer cap increases because the city had not yet received a report councilors commissioned analyzing how Burlington could best implement police reform. He also noted that he voted against the resolution that reduced the officer cap in the first place.

Stith also rebuked Dieng as inconsistent in his consideration of Murad.

After Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger announced that the acting chief was one of two final candidates in the police chief search, Dieng voted with Progressives to allocate $75,000 for a recruitment firm to scrounge up other applicants, and signaled to Seven Days that he would vote against the mayor’s pick.

But Dieng reversed course two days before the meeting and endorsed Murad. He told VTDigger that Murad had sufficiently addressed his primary reservation — allegations that the acting chief was disrespectful to Grant and Stephanie Seguino, another member of the city’s Police Commission — in a conversation between the two men.

Still, Stith criticized what he called a lack of transparency about how Dieng arrived at that decision, and said that he spoke with “a couple members of the police commission” who “all echoed the sentiment that Murad is an active listener.” He declined to name the commissioners.

In response to Frink’s tweet alleging the endorsement stemmed from racism, Stith said that policing and every aspect of city governance “should be looked at through an equity lens.” 

“I think racial equity, inclusion and belonging should be embedded in the city,” said Stith, who added that he also supports “robust citizen oversight” of the police.

Taylor — the third Ward 7 candidate, who has said an “apolitical third party” should pick the next permanent chief  — criticized the police union’s endorsement of Stith, saying in a statement to VTDigger the letter “oversimplifies the issue” of policing and “did not include any mention of systemic racism.”

“I hope to move the conversation on public safety for all forward if I am elected,” she said.

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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