George Floyd's death in Minneapolis has led to national calls to reform and even defund police departments.
In Vermont, law enforcement reform has quickly gained momentum in Burlington, the state's largest city, and Bennington, where police have long been accused of racial bias.
Around 7:45 Monday night, Burlington City Council President Max Tracy opened up the meeting’s public forum. The meeting, like most during the pandemic, was held virtually.
“We do have quite a few people signed up,” Tracy said. “In fact, the last I looked at the sheet ...well over 800 people had signed up.”
Ultimately, nearly 1,000 people signed up to speak, so many that the council decided to halt the forum at 2:30 a.m. and continue it Tuesday evening.
The unprecedented number of people calling in were demanding the city reduce the size of its police department, reallocate funds to social services and strengthen civilian oversight of the department.
“By the literal hundreds, we have been here trying to make our voices clear to the members of this council directly over the past weeks,” said Emiliano Void, who urged the council to adopt the demands of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, an advocacy group focused on dismantling systemic racism.
“We want to restructure public safety with an immediate refocus on how, who, what, and where we police,” Void said. “We want to get police out of schools, we want to stop using police for truancy calls. We want a 30% reduction in uniformed officers.”
For about seven hours, city councilors heard these and other calls to action — including demands that the city fire three cops involved in several high profile use-of-force cases, like one where an officer shoved a black man into a wall.
Those public calls spurred Mayor Miro Weinberger to announce he would reduce the budget by nearly $2 million — about 10%.
The majority of the savings would come from capping the number of officers at 93 – the current level – and not filling 12 vacant positions.
The cuts to the police department would be reallocated to fund several initiatives, including expanding the city’s racial equity office from one person to two, and expanding social services that could handle mental health calls instead of the police. The mayor also says he will re-evaluate the plan after one year.
“If we can expand some of these other capacities, perhaps we can diminish in the future the size of the department that is needed,” Weinberger said.
Acting Police Chief Jon Murad says the department can operate with this year’s proposed $16.3 million budget, but that further cuts would put public safety at risk.
“But at 93 officers, we are at the bare minimum for what we have, with regards to fielding the number of officers we need on any given day shift, on any given evening shift, any given midnight shift,” Murad said.
The Burlington police officer’s union did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously called proposals to cut the size of the department “radical and dangerous.”
Weinberger’s plan doesn’t cut the budget as much as some have called for, and he rejected demands by activists, like removing school resource officers. The mayor has also resisted calls to fire the three officers, saying that the incidents have already been investigated and in some cases, officers were disciplined.
During Monday night’s meeting, activists and community members said the city needed to go further.
Ashley LaPorte says Weinberger should be taking direction from groups like the Racial Justice Alliance, which have been working on these issues for years.
“This is exactly the kind of white privilege that we need to overcome,” LaPorte said. “Why the mayor thinks his plan is better than the demands that are clearly stated to divest from our police force and invest in communities of color, is the exact privilege we are asking you to overcome.”
Weinberger says he will not be making any more changes to the budget. But the 12-member city council could still decide to make changes before its June 30 deadline to pass the budget.
The Bennington Police Department has been under scrutiny for more than a year now over its handling of allegations of threats to former state representative Kiah Morris, who was Vermont's only black female lawmaker before she resigned. The department has also been sued for alleged racial profiling, and had the Vermont Supreme Court overturn a high profile traffic stop of a black man.
Last year, the town hired an outside firm to look into the department's practices.
The report came out in April, and at a select board meeting Monday night, chairman Donald Campbell said the national discussion over race relations and policing has made it more important that Bennington take action.
“We actually started a while ago, well before George Floyd’s death, but we’ve kind of pivoted to this realization that we really do want to see reform in our policing,” Campbell said.
The report did not find specific policies that encourage systemic bias. But the report does contain 25 recommendations which include developing a code of conduct, improving recruitment to diversify the workforce, and investing in training to recognize implicit bias.
On Monday, the board unanimously voted to hire Curtiss Reed, Jr., director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to help implement those recommendations.
“I know that this work is not without controversy in the community,” said Campbell, the select board chair. “We get a lot of emails and calls from both sides on this. It’s not a criticism of the men and women that work in our police department. It’s a criticism of policing in general, and our desire to see it be a little bit more community-based.”
While Reed wasn’t at Monday’s meeting, he wrote in a proposal that he would help the town figure out if Bennington police need a civilian review board, and work with town and police officials on mitigating the negative effects of bias.
Reed also said he wanted community members involved in the work from the start, and recommends that the town compensate people who serve on the two committees he wants to set up.
Bennington resident Mary Gerisch attended the virtual meeting and agreed it was important to get community members involved early.
“You don’t just need people who are, you know, the policy wonks and the professionals,” Gerisch said. “You need people from the community, because the policy is only going to reflect the experiences of the people in the community if they have input.”
Gerisch is a member of the group Rights and Democracy, a statewide organization that’s been gathering signatures for a petition that calls for the ouster of Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stuart Hurd.
The group says Bennington cannot move forward with real change while Hurd and Doucette remain.
Select board member Jeanne Connor recognized the urgency that local and national events have brought to Bennington, though she said having the community involved was crucial to making lasting change within the police department, and that could take some time.
“I know everyone is wanting to move along at a faster pace than apparently we’re moving,” Connor said. “But involving the community is so critical in making sure we get to a good outcome at the end of this process. But doing that is inherently going to slow the process down. And that’s completely appropriate, and what we should be doing.”
Reed has said his work could take up to six months, and that the COVID-19 pandemic could delay progress.
Reed is expected to schedule an initial community meeting next week to begin his work in Bennington.