Police in Vermont’s largest city face scrutiny following several incidents in which officers allegedly used excessive force.
First, there were questions about a case in which a man died a few days after getting into a fight with a Burlington cop. Then there were two men — both of whom were black — who filed federal lawsuits following their encounters with the department, which were caught on tape. City leaders and residents have since called for reform, including some activists who are taking oversight into their own hands.
On a recent Saturday night, two women stood in the shadow of city hall in downtown Burlington, arguing loudly with two police officers. The women appeared to have been involved in a fight.
All around them, people streamed out of restaurants and laughed with friends on their way to the bars. Most were careful to avoid the confrontation unfolding on the corner, zipping by without looking.
But not Jaz Mojica. She was resolutely watching the scene, her camcorder out and rolling — and she was not the only one recording. Five other people stood in a semicircle with their phones out.
One of the women talking to the police turned and asked Mojica what she was doing.
“We’re filming the cops, not you,” Mojica told her.
“You’re filming me!” the woman said, sounding annoyed.
“We’re just making sure they don’t violate your rights,” Mojica said.
The woman eventually told Mojica she didn’t mind being recorded.
Mojica was leading the group on a copwatch — that’s when activists go out and film police. The main goal, the group said, is to prevent officer misconduct. For most people in the group, that recent Saturday night was their first time out.
Generally, copwatching is done in small groups of at least two or three people — both for safety and to record incidents from multiple angles. In Burlington, Mojica organized shifts to patrol during times when police interactions were likely: weekend nights around the bars downtown.
During a shift, copwatchers move around the city looking for police. If they come across any action, the cameras come out. When recording, they’re supposed to stay quiet. Most of the tape gets deleted unless the video exposes misconduct, Mojica said.
“We notice that when we have cameras on the police, they stand up a little straighter,” she said. “They don’t want to be caught on camera doing anything inappropriate that could get them in trouble.”
Mojica is from Vermont, though she now lives in Austin, Texas. She's part of a group that copwatches in the latter city. A few days before she returned home for a visit, the news of the lawsuits against the Burlington police broke.
In response, Mojica made a Facebook event offering to teach people to copwatch. She said she received a strong response, with about 25 people attending the first training.
“Power to the people who go the city council route and all those kind of legitimate, quote-unquote political avenues,” Mojica said. “But I just get really frustrated sometimes and want to kind of exercise power in a different way.”
While activists responded quickly to the use-of-force incidents, the political reaction has been slower.
Last week, in an 11 to 1 vote, the Burlington City Council created a special committee to review police policies.
Independent councilor Adam Roof said the group needs a broad mandate to cover a number of issues, including use-of-force policy and officer training.
“If you take one of these things out, you’re missing part of the puzzle,” he said. “So it’s this dynamic between, ‘OK, do we want to be acute for the purpose of being swift, or do we want to be thorough — which requires process, which requires time.’”
The 15-person special committee will include city and police officials, social service organizations and activists, as well as representatives from local communities of color.
Some councilors have concerns. Perri Freeman, a progressive, said she’s worried about missing an opportunity to make substantive reform.
"There’s already so much reticence to create those kinds of changes, and I don’t know if creating a special committee around it is really going to create the amount political will and pressure,” Freeman said. “I think it’s going to require continued vigilance from the public, from people who are directly impacted by violence.”
One central concern about the recent incidents has been why it took a lawsuit, eight months after the fact, for the public to learn about the alleged excessive use-of-force cases. The department conducted an internal investigation and one officer was suspended. But the personnel matters, like internal investigations, are currently withheld from the public .
City leaders, including Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Mayor Miro Weinberger, want to change that.
“I think it was a real problem here that this didn’t come out for eight months — we’re suffering from the fact that we didn’t have policies,” Weinberger said. “I’m really quite hopeful that we’ll emerge from this with policies that accelerate the release of that information.”
The Burlington Police Officers' Association will have one representative on the new committee, but Cpl. Dan Gillian, the union president, is wary of change for change's sake.
“If it's just to add language that makes people feel better about it, that doesn't make any substantive change about how we actually conduct ourselves, then that just raises — that will raise a bunch of questions and a bunch of issues that we're going to have to work through,” he said.
As for the copwatchers, Gilligan said the police are used to being filmed.
“Filming us is fine as long as you're not interfering with what it is we're doing or just interfering with our personal space,” he said. “Because we're just like everybody else. We can’t have people in our face all the time.”
Back on Church Street in Burlington, during the copwatch, the two officers gave the women citations and notices to appear in court. Once the police left, the new copwatchers put down their phones.
Mojica assured them it would get easier.
“After you film once, you feel a lot more comfortable doing it again,” she said.
One of the new copwatchers, Lauren Kenney, said getting comfortable would take some time.
“Just like relaxing and being calm, like I’m literally just here to film, [to] be a force for de-escalation,” Kenney said.
Once her first copwatch interaction was over, Kenney turned back and joined the group. The activists kept their eyes peeled for flashing blue lights, cameras at the ready.