Hundreds of Vermonters have called for an independent investigation of police violence in Burlington last July, but city officials including the mayor, the police chief, and now the five members of the city police commission have joined in effectively stonewalling any outside review of what led some police officers to shoot rubber pellets and pepper spray at non-violent and fleeing demonstrators.
The Burlington City Council is divided on the question of how, or even whether to hold police accountable. The issue is expected to come before them at their next meeting October 15, in response the police commission’s unanimous vote against any independent assessment of police behavior.
At least 240 people have signed an online change.org petition calling on the mayor, the city council, and the police commission to “deliver an independent investigation and meaningful accountability” for police actions on July 29 when a small group of protestors tried to block several buses full of New England Governors, Canadian Premiers, and other dignitaries from going to a formal banquet at nearby Shelburne Farms. Video of the events shows clearly that the blockade was quickly dispersed by police in riot gear, after which some officers attacked protesters as the buses left the scene.
First term Mayor Miro Weinberger, who did not witness the events, promptly commended the police on their behavior. On August 24, the Burlington Police Department issued an in-house, 83-page “preliminary after action report” that asserted that the officers involved “showed exceptional professionalism under adverse, complex, and rapidly evolving circumstances.”
This report prompted four city councilors to call for an independent review, since the police report made no attempt to collect information from civilian witnesses or demonstrators. Meeting in September, members of the police commission indicated that they understood that the police report was an incomplete, internal review and was not intended to be a comprehensive review of events from all sides. This report contributed to the petition effort, as well as reports of widespread skepticism that city government would be responsive.
Rejecting any need for further review, Police Commission chair Jerome O’Neill, who was not a witness to the July 29 events, characterized some of the protesters as “troublemakers” during the commission meeting September 27. Responding to audience members defending their right to demonstrate, O’Neill told them, referring to the police, “You didn’t make their job any easier.”
Most of the 40 of so people at the commission meeting wanted an independent investigation, but the commission seemed to have its mind already made up to make no such recommendation for an independent body.
“What would we discover that we haven’t heard?” wondered commissioner Paul Hochenadel.
“And what new information would come out of an investigation that would change the opinion of the department and the folks that what they, what they did was within the, within the policy?” asked commissioner Sarah Kenney.
One of the organizers of the peaceful demonstrations of July 29, Jo Robin suggested that the commission could perhaps find out why she was visited by the FBI shortly before the governors’ conference, and what dealings the FBI and other federal security agencies were having with the Burlington Police Department.
“The value of an objective analysis and the value of a legal investigation is that the spin of a particular narrative can be examined from other sides by gathering evidence and counter evidence, and allegations can be examined for their truth value. In the case of this report, we have a narrative that attempts to paint a small group of protestors as a dangerous group who planned ahead of time to use aggressive and violent tactics on the police,” said Genese Grill, a professor of writing and critical thinking, reading her statement.
Expressing the commission’s unwillingness to look further, O’Neill commented at one point, “But the larger picture – I think we have the picture, I think we understand fundamentally what happened.
The director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, attorney Robert Appel, tried explaining to the police commission some of the problems with the official response so far: “I was also concerned that within a day or two of the event that both the Chief and the Mayor issued public statements which at least I had perceived to be saying the police acted reasonably. I don’t know how you square that with an after the fact review that is internal…. I’m worried that without a true independent, dispassionate review of what occurred that day… that trust and connection with all of the community will be dissipated.”
O’Neill responded only by asking Appel to conclude. When O’Neill and the other commissioners set about writing their recommendation to have no further investigation, more than 20 people walked out in protest.
“This is unbelievable,” said attorney Sandy Baird, a community activist and Burlington College history teacher whose critique of official actions has been broadcast on community television: “They didn’t mention one violent act on the part of the protesters because there was none. My question remains, why weren’t they arrested? The cops had weapons, the protesters did not.”
City councilors at the police commission meeting included Rachel Siegel and Sharon Bushor, both of whom favor an independent investigation.” In August they signed a letter, along with council members Vince Brennan and Max Tracy, asking the mayor to support a neutral review. The city council has 13 members.
Council president Joan Shannon was also present, but remained silent.