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Police oversight dominates Burlington Progressives’ public safety plan

During a press conference held Tuesday by Burlington City Council Progressives, councilors stood between signs that promoted “community control of police.”

That issue was proposed by council Progressives in 2020 and was vetoed by Mayor Miro Weinberger. Falling short of a veto override, the proposal to create a Community Control Board for the police department faded from the council’s agenda.

But activists revived the issue, gathering the required signatures to place the proposed charter change on the Town Meeting Day ballot. Progressive councilors have rallied around it. Now those behind the petition campaign find themselves in a battle of narratives with Weinberger, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad and others.

On Tuesday, the Progressives’ press conference centered on public safety, in part to respond to Weinberger’s own press conference on the subject last week. The Progressives outlined what they called their “seven pillars” to address public safety.

While the two plans have some overlap in their ultimate goals, such as preventing gun violence and increasing police retention, they differ in approach. The loudest debate has been around police oversight.

At the Progressives’ press conference, Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, said trust in the police department has waned following use-of-force incidents, officer-involved shootings and scandals that led to the resignations of two police chiefs. In addition, he said the police commission has documented racial disparities in police stops dating back years.

“This did not start in 2020 and all of this has eroded community trust in the police department. And trust is crucial for public safety, for all of our safety,” Bergman said. “To restore and maintain trust, we believe there must be greater community oversight and transparency.”

Bergman went on to say that “thousands of Burlington voters petitioned for the right to vote on an independent board and we want to say right here and now that we support those voters and we support their oversight proposal, and we hope that the voters approve it.”

In a written statement sent after the Progressives’ press conference, Weinberger responded to their support of the proposal.

“I am stunned that after all of the challenges we have faced with police staffing and public safety in the last two and a half years that Progressive Councilors are now supporting a proposed charter change that would create a new, dysfunctional system of police oversight that will exacerbate our serious staffing challenges,” Weinberger said.

The proposed community control board, which like all other municipal charter changes in Vermont requires the Legislature’s approval if passed by city voters, would be made up of between seven and nine Burlington residents who are not current or former law enforcement officers. The members would have three-year terms and would be compensated at a “liveable wage” for their time on the board.

The selection of the board would require multiple steps.

First, on an annual basis, the City Council and mayor would select seven “community-based organizations that have an interest in civil rights, immigrant rights, disability rights/mental health, racial equity and social justice and that also have an interest in the safety of the city and criminal justice reform,” according to the proposal. Three of those organizations would be Black-led or have majority Black membership.

The selected organizations would select representatives to form the appointment committee. The director of the city’s Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging office and a city councilor appointed by the council president would also join the appointment committee.

Once formed, the appointment committee would “appoint qualified persons to be members of the board.”

The board’s authority would include powers to discipline or remove police officers, including the chief. It would also have the power to “issue subpoenas to compel testimony” and to conduct investigations with access to all records at the police department.

Full language of the proposed charter change can be found, along with all other warned Town Meeting Day charter changes, on the city’s website.

Advocates pushing the petition campaign said the version of the oversight board on Town Meeting Day ballots is similar to the vetoed City Council version. The need for such a proposal, they said, rose out of the Battery Park protests in 2020 drawing attention to use-of-force incidents within the police department. But after the proposal's failure at the council level, a group calling itself People for Police Accountability didn’t want to give up.

“We decided, well, there's another way to get this on the ballot,” said Tyler Pastorok, a member of that group. “And, you know, (it) involves even more engagement with the community. And that was the petition route, and so we were like, yeah, let's go for it.”

The group’s members then went around the city to gather signatures. They made progress, but had to restart their petition campaign after some updates to the language in the proposals, Pastorok said.

“Gene (Bergman) was a huge part of the wording of the charter change,” Pastorok said, adding that Bergman met with the group regularly.

“I was acting as an adviser on both the process and language so that it made sense and was in the structure that was desired,” Bergman said in an interview on Thursday.

Bergman said he thought the version that voters will decide on is “pretty close” to the City Council version, with some changes that make it more open in terms of qualifications of board members.

But the makeup of board members was one component of the proposal to which Weinberger and Murad objected in a press conference last week. Weinberger said excluding current and former police officers from the board is “offensive.”

Pastorok defended that choice, saying the intention of forming the board is to rebuild public trust in the police. “If you allow current or former officers to be on the board, that could really undermine that trust-building, particularly between folks in the community who have historically been marginalized by police,” he said.

Pastorok also said the assertion that the board would entirely remove the police chief from the discipline process of officers was "blatantly wrong." He described the board’s authority as reviewing discipline within the department but it’s also “at their discretion to step in and sort of take the reins of a disciplinary process if they decide that that's appropriate.”

In comments from his press conference and in the written statement this week, Weinberger has argued the independent board is unfair.

“No public employee would want to work under and be judged by a system that does not ensure fairness, relevant expertise, and due process,” Weinberger said in the statement.

Bergman called those comments “fear mongering.”

“There's a whole section on the department's powers of investigation and adjudication of complaints,” he said.

Pastorok said he didn’t think this version of oversight was that unusual.

“External oversight in other high-stakes fields is the norm. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and so many others have external oversight,” Pastorok said.

City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, said during Tuesday’s press conference that she did not see the proposal as an attack on police officers. “Just like when we do a financial audit. It's not an attack on our accountants. It's us doing our due diligence.”

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