Politics

Burlington council approves police union contract raising pay, addressing oversight

Acting Police Chief Jon Murad discusses a plan to increase public safety in downtown Burlington in May. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The Burlington City Council on Monday night voted to ratify a three-year contract with the union that represents the city’s police force, signing off on a 20% base pay raise over the length of the contract.

The agreement with the Burlington Police Officers’ Association also addresses issues of police oversight and accountability, in part by extending the amount of time the city can keep disciplinary records and increasing the role the Police Commission plays in the disciplinary process. 

It replaces a four-year contract that expired on June 30 and, according to a press release issued Monday night by Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger, builds upon the $1.2 million “Rebuilding Plan” that the council approved last month.

Councilors approved the contract on a 10-1 vote, with Perri Freeman, P-Central District, casting the sole vote against it. Ali House, P-Ward 8, was absent. 

“There are just some points that don’t meet the threshold for … some of the main things I was particularly concerned about,” Freeman said before the vote.

In Monday’s press release, Weinberger hailed the contract as “major community progress at a time when we are facing serious public safety challenges and an urgent need to rebuild the Burlington Police Department.” It comes during a spate of gunfire incidents in the city and as the department grapples with high attrition and depleted ranks. 

Progressives were more muted in their support. Councilor Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, called the contract “only one piece of the transformation that we need to make.” He and Councilors Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, and Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, openly expressed disappointment with the contract, characterizing it as a necessary compromise.

The 20% pay increase over three years includes a 12% increase in fiscal year 2023. Weinberger’s office said in the press release that the raise puts Burlington “in a very competitive position with respect to other Vermont police departments, including the State Police,” to attract and retain members of its force. 

Supporters of police reform won extensions of the amount of time the city can keep disciplinary records. Under the contract, records concerning use of force violations and other serious policy violations can be retained by the department permanently. Records of suspensions will be retained for four years. Letters of reprimand and other disciplinary records short of suspension will be kept for two years.

In addition, according to Weinberger’s office, the contract allows for changing the disciplinary interview process to be “consistent with best practice from police oversight advocates,” clarifying and enhancing the Police Commission’s and mayor’s access to records during misconduct investigations, and codifying that the Police Commission can play both an advisory role to the chief prior to the issuance of a disciplinary decision, and serve as an appeals body. 

New contract provisions also prevent the city from hiring officers who have been fired for disciplinary reasons by other law enforcement agencies.

This is the first contract agreement since the council cut the force by 30% two years ago, from a cap of 105 officers down to 72, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and public pressure to “defund the police” and reallocate city funds to more social services. The council raised the cap back to 87 last October. 

The Burlington Police Department currently has 62 sworn officers, down from 66 in May, according to acting chief Jon Murad, but only “52 effective officers” who can actually serve, 22 of whom conduct patrols. (Others are unable to serve for reasons such as military deployment and medical leave.)

During a press conference earlier Monday afternoon in response to a shooting that left two people dead and one critically injured, Murad called his current police force “maxed out” from the amount of investigatory work on his limited staff, noting the city has experienced 18 gunfire incidents since the start of the year. 

“And we put equal effort into all of them, whether there is a homicide involved, whether there are people struck and we have a shooting or whether there’s nothing but the idea that guns have been discharged and recovered shell cases,” Murad said. “Each of those requires paperwork and requires investigation. … So that is an unimaginable volume of work compared to what we have known in the past. So ‘maxed out’ is frankly an inadequate euphemism.”

The number of officers on the force was top of mind for Shimmy Cohen, who formerly lived in Burlington for more than three decades and was at the scene of the shooting on Monday.

“It bothers me that Burlington Progressives have cut the police department funding,” said Cohen, a longtime employee of Boucher & Pritchard Funeral Home near the site of the old North End shooting. “We need more cops — they just don’t seem to have the respect or caring for the police, until something happens on their property.”

According to national reports, an increased public demand for police accountability and confronting racial biases on police forces across the country has led to an influx in retirements and failure to attract potential new officers, decreasing morale for remaining officers. 

A summer 2021 survey from the Police Executive Research Forum looked at nearly 200 departments and found a 45% increase in retirement and almost 20% increase in resignations from 2020-21 compared to 2019-20. 

An assessment of the Burlington Police Department last fall, conducted by CNA Consulting, identified various shortcomings, including poor staffing, insufficient training and evidence of racial bias. According to Seven Days, CNA concluded that the previous union contract was one reason for the departmental defects. 

In an effort to recruit more officers, the City Council last month authorized the use of $270,000 for officer signing bonuses and another $150,000 for such incentives as housing, education and child care assistance. 

Other recently ratified city contracts

The police contract is the latest of several recently ratified by the city. 

Last week, the council unanimously signed off on a new contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees increasing pay by 18% over four years.

The four-year contract establishes Burlington as the first municipality in Vermont to offer paid family leave to its employees — starting at four weeks of 100% compensation, effective immediately, and gradually adding another eight weeks of leave at 60% compensation.

The contract covers employees of several municipal entities, such as Burlington City Arts and the Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, but according to Weinberger’s office, the paid leave benefit would be extended to more than 400 city employees. 

The city council also ratified a four-year contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 27, negotiating an 18% base wage increase over the term of the contract. According to Weinberger’s office, the city is working to reach a contract with the last of its four unions, the Burlington Firefighters Association.

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Kori Skillman

About Kori

Kori Skillman recently earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with a focus on visual craft and short documentary. She also holds degrees in journalism and international business from San Diego State University. Kori worked this year as a press intern at the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

Email: [email protected]

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