BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington City Council is considering putting a proposed charter change to voters this spring that would give more power to the city’s police commission, a thorny issue that has divided Democrats and Progressives for upwards of three years.
Burlington voters in March defeated a measure that would have created an independent police oversight board that could discipline and fire police officers for misconduct. But out of that failure, the council and the mayor committed to delving deeper into the idea of expanding the oversight role of the Burlington Police Commission.
Geroge Floyd’s murder three years ago sparked protests and the occupation of Burlington’s Battery Park. The debate over police use of force spurred Progressive councilors to cut police staffing and seek civilian control of police discipline.
While the staff cuts have been reversed, Progressives and Democrats remain at odds over the oversight question. The exact rules outlining the commission’s powers are nebulous and Progressives say they want to change that. “Making it clear so that there’s no question that they’ve got the right to audit the department, they’ve got the right to monitor the department, they’ve got the right to develop policies and directives,” said Councilor Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, one of the 6 councilors on the Joint Police Oversight Committee.
Other councilors agree that the commission’s powers are often confused because they are not codified in the law of the city. “They have access to information around all use of force incidents. They have access to community complaints around the police department. They have stood up the right to, if they want, to conduct their own independent investigation of these types of claims. They’ve been provided resources to do that,” said Councilor Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5.
Bergman says he wants to use the charter change to add new authority for the commission to include making disciplinary decisions for officers who commit serious offenses, a power that currently is left solely to the police chief. “For the highest level offenses, a community group like the commission should be the ones to decide. I think that makes the most sense for building trust,” Bergman said.
But this is where Progressives and Democrats, including the mayor, have split in the past and Traverse says voters firmly rejected independent oversight last March. “What I heard from voters this past Town Meeting Day was that, to the extent we end up in a situation where discipline a corrective action of an employee of the police department is necessary, that that is something that should be within the control of the police chief. I believe that that’s appropriate,” he said.
The committee is still early in this process and plans to discuss the issue further at a meeting next Tuesday.
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