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Burlington City Council Holds Special Meeting To Discuss Weeks-Long Protests

Burlington street sign
Pat Bradley/WAMC

The Burlington City Council called a meeting this week to hear from protesters who have been camping out across the street from the police station in Vermont’s largest city for nearly three weeks and try to determine how the city might meet their demands.
Protesters have set up an encampment in Battery Park adjacent to the Burlington Police Department. Every night at about 6:30 they march to City Hall to repeat their calls to have three police officers fired.

The officers were involved in use-of force incidents in 2018 and 2019, and the police department says the cases are closed.

The Progressive-led city council called a special meeting this week to allow protesters to call in and again voice their demands. Sophie Cassel reflected many of the callers’ sentiments.  “I am calling today to demand the firing of the three officers. I recognize that it’s going to be difficult. I am terrified of a backlash and I know that we need to this anyway.”
     “My name’s Ashley Laporte. What I need you to understand is what we’re protesting for and what we’re asking for is deeply personal and it’s really local. I don’t know if many of you have re-watched the footage of Sargent Jason Bellavance walking up to Jeremie Melie without working to engage or deescalate him first. But he immediately shoves Melie into the wall and you can hear his head crack.  I have heard many retorts that this is legally not a viable option to fire them. That it will cost the city money.  Consider it reparations for not doing the right thing the first time around.”

Following two hours of comments the city council turned to city attorney Eileen Blackwood, who reiterated that state law prohibits the city council from firing, or hiring, police officers.  “The chief has authority not the mayor or the council.  And that is something that would need to be changed by a charter change.”

Blackwood also outlined due process concerns and several legal hurdles the city faces if it tries to fire the officers.  “Once a matter’s been adjudicated and it's gone through a disciplinary matter the government can't take further action against the person arising out of that same incident. And that's one of the issues here is their situations have been adjudicated.”

Ward 3 Progressive Brian Pine says the council is between a rock and a hard place in trying to meet protesters’ demands while upholding legal rights of the officers.  “I think it's safe to say that there's an overwhelming sense in this community that we have not effectively atoned and made up for grievances that still are festering in this community. I don't know what else there is to do as far as a path forward other than what folks have been asking us to do. Which the legal opinion is we can't do what the community is asking us to do.”

Councilor Paul offered a resolution to reassert the city’s commitment to racial justice and furthering policing practices and that the Police Commission review and analyze impediments to stronger discipline  and report back to the council, and that the Charter Change Committee review options for  police disciplinary decisions and report to the council in October.  “I think we're all acutely aware and understand that the unrest the community members are expressing in response to the use of force incidents involving Burlington police officers Jason Bellavance, Corey Campbell and Joseph Corrow. The video of these incidents they’re emblematic of flaws in policing.  We need to be forward thinking. We need to act.  And I think the resolution is forward thinking. There are action steps.”

An amendment offered by East District Progressive Jack Hanson and Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower calling for the city to continue to refrain from enforcing anti-camping laws failed on a tie vote. This week, interim police chief Jennifer Morrison announced she is stepping down, citing the council’s approach to police policy.

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