Burlington, Vermont City Councilors plan to introduce resolutions at their meeting next week calling for a review of the city police department’s use-of-force policy. The move comes after two lawsuits claiming excessive force were filed and a man died following a third controversial incident.
Two separate incidents in September 2018 outside bars in downtown Burlington have led to federal lawsuits against the city, both claiming excessive force and brutality by police officers. One lawsuit alleges Officer Jason Bellavance shoved Jeremie Meli, causing him to fall backward and hit his head. His brother was tackled, injured and arrested after placing his hand on Officer Cory Campbell's shoulder and asking him to stop the altercation. Bellavance was suspended after an internal investigation.
The second lawsuit accuses Officer Joseph Corrow of grabbing an individual, slamming him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.
The lawsuits were filed less than a month after the Vermont medical examiner ruled as a homicide the March death of another man involved in an altercation with Officer Campbell outside the Emergency Room at the UVM Medical Center. Douglas Kilburn reportedly hit Campbell in the face and Campbell punched him back. Kilburn died three days later. The case is being investigated by the Vermont State Police.
Progressive members of the Burlington City Council announced over the weekend that they are drafting a resolution calling for a thorough review of the police department’s use-of-force policy. It comes after the release of body cam footage of the September incidents. Ward 3 Progressive Brian Pine explains that during their last meeting they were given the option to view the police body cam video of the Kilburn incident and chose not to. “Given that the Kilburn case is still actively being investigated and once we’d viewed the footage we would’ve essentially under a gag order that would not provide anything of benefit to our constituents. So that was that piece of development on Monday. But on Friday when the lawsuits were filed against the department, civil suits, those attorneys released the body cam footage on those cases and that was what really motivated myself and the others to take immediate action and not allow this to fester.”
Pine says the resolution they plan to offer would require police officers to exhaust all reasonable means before resorting to force. “We certainly want to be comprehensive about this but we also want to move as rapidly as possible on the use of force. So there may be kind of a stage-gate here if you will with the first stage being to focus on the use-of-force policy and procedures and training. And what we don’t have is you know a formal oversight body other than the (Burlington Police) Commission at this point. And I think we’re going to have to look at whether that model is still the right one for Burlington or whether we need to find something that ensures more accountability, you know more frequent reporting, so that we are always aware and can make changes when necessary.”
Burlington City Council President Ward 4 Republican Kurt Wright anticipates multiple resolutions will be offered that take different approaches to revise the use-of-force policy. “I’m certainly not opposed at reviewing police practices especially right now in light of some of the things that have been out there. I want to be careful in anything that the council trying to do that there’s no jumping to conclusions about our police department, that anything that we do does not actually tie the hands of police and recognize that overall I believe they do a really good job. Having said that a review from time to time of policies is not a bad thing.”
During the April 29th City Council meeting, Chief Brandon Del Pozo did tell city councilors that the use of force policy needs to be updated. “Our training has actually outpaced the writing of the policy in certain ways. We’re finding ourselves in situations sometimes where officers act outside of the guidance of their training but we can’t take affirmative action because the policy hasn’t been updated. We have a need to do that. I intend to do it and I’d welcome participation from the community.”
Audio from the City Council meeting is courtesy of Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.