Residents of Vermont’s largest city will vote Tuesday on whether to create a community police oversight board that would have the authority to discipline Burlington police officers, including the chief.
Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, vetoed a similar measure in 2020 following protests over several use-of-force incidents by Burlington officers and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
This time advocates gathered enough signatures to get the latest proposal on Tuesday’s Town Meeting Day ballot. If the charter change passes, it would need to be approved by the Legislature and governor.
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“This proposal codifies the principle that police should not oversee themselves. They are accountable to the communities that they serve,” said Burlington City Councilor Gene Bergman, a progressive, at a recent event promoting the measure.
A number of cities have community oversight boards, but not many have discipline authority. Advocates say the Burlington proposal is based on models in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. But Weinberger, who along with the acting police chief opposes it, wrote to the City Council that police oversight systems in those cities are “dramatically different from what is proposed for Burlington in numerous ways, including their disciplinary authority, structure, accountability, and more.”
Similar to the City Council’s 2020 resolution to reduce the size of the police department by 30%, “this initiative is a risky experiment with Burlington’s public safety with little to no precedent or planning,” Weinberger wrote. He also said it will undermine efforts to rebuild the police department. The city already has a volunteer Burlington Police Commission that reviews all complaints and police uses of force, he said.
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Berman pushed back against critics, saying it’s not an experiment, is not biased against police and does not remove the chief from disciplinary decisions. The board must find just cause for discipline, and officers have rights to appeal, he said.
“Clearly community trust in police has eroded. We know trust is critical for public safety. And to restore and maintain trust we need greater community oversight,” Bergman said.
The co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, who got their ice cream start in Burlington and have been pushing for police accountability around the country, also had their say.
“Burlington has long been home to bold ideas about how to build a better world,” said Jerry Greenfield. “Over the last three decades we’ve seen the city thrive when it leans in and lives up to the values of its residents. That’s what ballot item seven is about. It’s about creating independent civilian oversight of the Burlington police department in order to improve our public safety right here.”
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