An issue that shadowed Burlington, Vermont officials throughout 2020 began at the end of 2019. As Progressives took control of the City Council, policing issues were targeted. Now the department faces cuts moving into 2021.
On December 16, 2019 Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger accepted the resignation of then-Police Chief Brandon del Pozo after he admitted using an anonymous Twitter account to criticize a local activist and department critic. The mayor then appointed Deputy Chief Jan Wright to serve as Acting Chief. But within hours she too was replaced after admitting to the mayor she had used an anonymous Facebook account. Deputy Chief Jon Murad then served as Acting Chief until the City Council approved former Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison as interim Chief on January 6th.
Scrutiny of the police department intensified over the course of 2020.
In February the Committee on Reforming Police Practices submitted its report to the City Council. Committee Chair Randall Harp: “The police commission currently has some oversight about how the process of discipline works. The committee encouraged revisions to that practice.”
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody this summer, activists in Burlington stepped up demands to reform the Burlington Police Department. Public comments during a June Police Commission meeting summarized demands advanced by the Racial Justice Alliance.
Andrea Kohl: “Thirty percent reduction in uniformed officers.”
Danielle Shaw: “The removal of all police out of schools.”
Reed Frost: “And to fire the abusive officers: Joseph Corrow, Cory Campbell, and Jason Bellavance.
Beyond reciting the demands, some of the advocates expressed strong criticism of Burlington’s police department.
“I am a white resident of Ward 5. The institution of policing in this country was founded in racism and white supremacy. The police in Burlington are no different from the police elsewhere. The institution itself is immoral and must be abolished.”
The same sentiments were expressed at hours-long public comments during City Council meetings.
In mid-June Mayor Weinberger, a Democrat, offered his proposed 2021 budget that included programs to promote racial equity and transform policing. “The budget has $1.1 million in expense cuts. There's also nearly approximately $800,000 in reallocations to other departments. We are going to immediately allocate $300,000 of these cuts to a new fund for racial equity and police transformation.”
On August 25th activists set up an encampment in Battery Park adjacent to the police station and marched nightly to City Hall to continue their call for the firing of three police officers involved in 2018 and 2019 use-of-force incidents. City officials said they could not be fired because the officers had already been investigated, exonerated of any use-of-force charges and disciplined.
Ward 3 Progressive Brian Pine said the council was stuck between a rock and a hard place. “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.”
Eventually one of the officers agreed to a separation agreement and left in early October. In the midst of the month-long camp-out by activists, Acting Chief Morrison announced that she was resigning in part due to her husband’s health. But her letter added: “The main reason I will not return is because I believe that too many members of the current City Council are more interested in social activism than good governance.”
In late September Mayor Weinberger announced a series of initiatives to reform the Police Department. A key move was appointing Kyle Dodson to a new temporary position as Director of Police Transformation. “His role will focus on identifying areas for change, guiding the development of new policy. He will oversee day to day the multiple police transformation processes that the city has committed to in recent months.”
By the end of September the activists had dismantled the camp but remain active.
The budget that passed on June 29th included provisions that the police department reduce the number of uniformed officers by 30% by attrition. In mid-December Acting Chief Jon Murad said staffing is already down 15% and warned that the night shift may have to be curtailed. “We anticipate being at 79 sworn effective by the beginning of the next tour on January 3. And when we get to approximately 76 sworn and approximately 36 officers available for patrol we will no longer be able to deploy overnight coverage.”
The acting chief presented his staffing concerns to the city council during its last meeting of the year on December 21st.