Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has nixed the creation of a citizens police oversight board that would have the authority to conduct investigations of alleged police misconduct and take disciplinary action.
The veto is Weinberger’s second in his eight-year tenure as mayor.
In a memo to the city council, the mayor wrote that the new board is “hostile” to police and will “accelerate the departures of sworn officers from the department.”
He’s also concerned that the proposal is too detailed for a charter change, which — if passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor — would be difficult to amend easily. He said he is also concerned that the proposal would impact the city’s ability to lead an “effective” police department over the long term.
“My overriding objection to the proposed charter change is that as written,” Weinberger wrote, “it will contribute to the dismantling of the Burlington Police Department and compromise the City’s ability to ensure public safety.”
The Burlington Police Department has said in recent weeks that it’s experiencing a staffing crisis after the council passed a resolution last summer that reduced the force by 30% through attrition and placed a 74-officer cap on the department. It has seen a number of departures in recent months and the force now stands at 81 officers.
Acting Chief Jon Murad has said 10 officers have left or retired from the force since last summer. If the force drops to 76 officers, it will not be able to provide overnight coverage from 3:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., Murad said.
“If we cannot find consensus now and my veto is sustained, we must find other ways to make near term progress on the issue of police discipline and reforms that protect and build trust with the public, especially BIPOC communities,” Weinberger wrote.
The new Independent Community Control Board was first proposed by Councilor Perri Freeman, P-Central District, who serves on the Charter Change Committee, in response to the outcry from hundreds of demonstrators who demanded police reforms in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis. Protesters called for the firing of three Burlington Police Department officers who had been involved in alleged excessive use of force incidents. Freeman could not immediately be reached for comment.
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The charter change would give the board the authority to overrule the police chief in investigations of complaints and discipline of officers.
In his memo, the mayor states he would be willing to work with the council’s framework of a new, independent body, if his central concerns are addressed. He said he thinks the new proposal cuts the police chief out of the disciplinary decision-making process too much and allows the new board to remove chiefs for “a long list of reasons.” He said he also has concerns that there’s no language in the charter promising the board will work fairly and impartially.
The proposal states that the board has the power to investigate complaints against officers and the chief relating to excessive force; abuse of authority, unlawful arrests, stops or searches; discourtesy or disrespect; and offensive language, theft, discrimination or untruthfulness.
If a compromise cannot be reached, Weinberger wants to move forward with a resolution to give the current Police Commission new disciplinary power, including the “authority to conduct independent investigations.” He said he thinks a charter change isn’t needed to give the commission this power, but it would need more funding to conduct investigations. Weinberger said he would include that money in a budget amendment.
Scores of Burlingtonians have called into city council meetings to express their support for the Independent Community Control Board, which they argue has more teeth, unlike the current citizen advisory Police Commission, to hold the police accountable.
The Independent Community Control Board was approved by councilors in a 7-5 vote on Dec. 15 and will go to a vote on Town Meeting Day, March 2.
Councilors who opposed the proposal raised several concerns about the charter change. They say it lacks details about budgetary needs for the board; it is not clear what kinds of complaints the board would investigate; and board members, who would have investigatory and subpoena powers, are not required to have any sort of training. (The board would have the authority to hire an outside investigator.)
The current citizen Burlington Police Commission also opposes the charter change. In a recent memo outlining their concerns, members of the commission said the proposed board structure is typically only used by larger cities that see far more complaints than Burlington.
Weinberger also said the charter change is overly detailed. Typically, a city’s charter lays the groundwork for specifics that are hammered out in the ordinance process because charters can be complicated to amend. It can take years to pass a charter change — first it goes to voters, if passed, it heads to the Legislature for approval and then requires the governor’s signature.
“This structured rigidity is likely to create festering problems and serious challenges for public safety in the years to come,” Weinberger said.
In the memo, he says he’s vetoing the charter change “with great reluctance” because he views the current charter change as “problematic.”
City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said he thinks Weinberger’s veto of the new board is “deeply disappointing.”
“It’s certainly disappointing to see that the mayor is not willing to at least allow voters to weigh in on that plan,” Tracy said. “I fully trust that if this wasn’t right for Burlington that the voters would let us know that.”
Tracy and independent councilor Ali Dieng are both challenging Weinberger in the mayor’s race on Town Meeting Day.
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Tracy said the council will likely pursue a veto override at Monday night’s meeting. A two-thirds vote of the council is needed to override the mayor’s veto. Seven councilors supported the charter change proposal — one more would need to be flipped to overturn the mayor’s veto.
Tracy said he’s not sure that a compromise can be found between Weinberger’s counterproposal and the charter change proposal passed by the council. “We have pretty fundamentally different approaches to this,” Tracy said.
He also criticized the mayor for making his veto known two weeks after the council passed the charter change, which he views as lost time for collaboration. The council has been told by the city attorney that charter change proposals needed to be finalized back in December, before more public hearings will be held to make final adjustments to the language in January.
Weinberger said he’s willing to work over the weekend to come to agreement with the Progressive councilors backing this charter change. He said he also attempted to find consensus with councilors before the proposal passed and made clear earlier he didn’t support it.
Tracy said he doesn’t think a resolution to give investigatory powers to the Police Commission makes sense, given that officer disciplinary power currently lies with the chief in the city’s charter. “I don’t see how we can have a resolution supersede that authority in the charter,” Tracy said.
If consensus cannot be found and the veto stands, Weinberger said he wants to move forward with other police reforms.
Weinberger says while he has vetoed the charter change as presented, he wants to establish a Special Committee of Councilors and Administration representatives to find a path forward.
In order to get a charter change to the Legislature by 2022, Weinberger said the city should commit to a special election next fall.
Weinberger has also directed Director of Police Transformation Kyle Dodson to complete a review of the BPD’s officer training and evaluation systems and issue recommendations to the mayor’s office and the council. Weinberger said Dodson is also “exploring the creation of a process to forge reconciliation between the Burlington police and the BIPOC community.”
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