Two men have filed federal lawsuits against Burlington police, alleging they were subjected to unprovoked, excessive force and knocked unconscious during separate incidents in September 2018.
“On its face this is a clear excessive use of force case,” said Evan Chadwick, the attorney representing the men. He said the lawsuits were filed late Thursday. Meli and Jok are black.
The complaints also allege the city, “as a matter of policy and practice,” has failed to discipline officers for violating the constitutional rights of citizens.
In an interview, Burlington Police Chief Brandon Del Pozo painted a different picture. He said he learned of the incidents the same month they took place, and initiated an internal investigation which resulted in an officer's suspension.
VPR obtained video footage of both incidents.
Burlington Police body camera footage, Sept. 2018 [contains graphic language/footage]
On the night of Sept. 8, Meli, along with his brothers Charlie and Albin, were inside the What Ales You Bar, according to the lawsuit. They left after getting into a confrontation with others inside the bar, according to the lawsuit.
Police were called. Records indicate no injuries were reported to police and there were no weapons involved, the lawsuit said.
Sgt. Jason Bellavance soon arrived, and found Jeremie Meli and the bar’s owner arguing on the sidewalk.
Bellavance did not announce his presence. He shoved Meli with both hands. Meli’s head slammed into a nearby wall, knocking him unconscious, according to the lawsuit. Other officers arrived. Police rolled Meli on his stomach and put a knee on the back of Meli’s neck. While he was restrained, Meli vomited and slipped in and out of consciousness, according to the lawsuit.
The state charged Meli, an alumnus of the University of Vermont and Rice Memorial High School, with simple assault and disorderly conduct, but prosecutors dropped the charges. Meli, who is pursuing a medical degree, has struggled with his vision and balance since the encounter, according to the lawsuit.
Albin Meli stood close by during the encounter between Bellavance and Jeremie Meli, and became upset, telling officers what he saw was “not right." He “placed his hand,” on officer Cory Campbell’s shoulder, according to the lawsuit,“pointing to his brother and asking Campbell, ‘Can you please stop?’”
Campbell, Bellavance and other officers tackled Albin Meli, tearing ligaments in his thumb and arresting him, according to the lawsuit. Charlie Meli was also arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, according to the lawsuit. All charges against the brothers were dropped. The brothers are both co-plaintiffs in Jeremie Meli’s lawsuit.
The second incident involved Burlington police officer Joseph Corrow and Sudanese Vermonter, Mabior Jok.
Video was captured by a bystander.
Bystander video of Burlington Police, Sept. 2018 [contains graphic footage]
On September 8, Jok was standing with a group of people on Main Street, and a conversation became heated, attracting the attention of Corrow, according to the lawsuit.
Corrow approached Jok, and, without announcing himself or giving instructions, slammed him to the ground, rendering him unconscious, according to the lawsuit. Police charged Jok with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but prosecutors dropped the charges.
The Jok case, Chadwick said, is very similar to the Meli brothers' case.
“You have a report of some kind of confrontation, you have a police officer approaching from the blind side, not identifying himself, not using any verbal cues which they are trained to use to de escalate any situations, immediately using excessive force,” Chadwick said.
Del Pozo said immediately after learning about the incidents last year, he initiated an internal investigation, contracting a retired New Hampshire police investigator to do much of the work. Del Pozo said he engaged the Burlington Police Commission, consulted with a use of force expert from Maryland, and asked the Chittenden County States Attorney to review the incidents.
According to Del Pozo, the State's Attorney concluded neither incident “rose to the level of criminal activity.”
The investigation into the incidents did result in one officer being disciplined. Del Pozo said Bellavance’s use of force was found unnecessary. He was suspended for “several days,” and put on administrative duty for several weeks. “It was one of the most severe suspensions I’ve administered,” Del Pozo said.
At the same time, Del Pozo said, Corrow's use of force against Jok was determined to be reasonable and no discipline was issued.
Del Pozo also noted the incidents motivated him to certify staff instructors in a national de-escalation curriculum.
Michele Asch, chair of the police commission, said in an interview that she was satisfied with Burlington Police Department’s response to the two incidents.
The lawsuits come as the department is dealing with another controversial use of force incident.
Last month, Vermont's chief medical examiner ruled 54-year-old Douglas Kilburn's death a homicide.
Three days before Kilburn was found dead, the Burlington man was in an altercation with officer Campbell outside UVM Medical Center.
According to police, Kilburn assaulted Campbell outside the hospital's emergency department on March 11, leading Campbell to punch Kilburn in the face. Kilburn was treated for his injuries but then found dead in his apartment days later, on March 14. The medical examiner did not determine a cause of Kilburn's death. His death certificate lists several contributing factors, including cardiac disease, obesity, diabetes, as well as skull fractures from an impact. City officials came under fire for asking the governor's office to delay the release of the autopsy findings.