New Burlington Police Commissioners Hope To Improve Trust In Department

Aug 14, 2019

Vermont's largest city has been grappling with questions around police oversight after incidents of alleged excessive force. The tipping point came in May, after federal lawsuits accused Burlington officers of using unnecessary force against black men.

In light of these incidents, the city council in June appointed three black men to the citizen commission that oversees Burlington police. The new members all have different backgrounds, but they share common goals: repairing trust between the community and police.

More from VPR: As Burlington Police Face Scrunity, City Leaders And Activists Call For Reform [June 12]

Jabulani Gamache, 33, is a bartender at Manhattan Pizza, a pub in downtown Burlington. He's also one of the recently appointed police commissioners.

Gamache has worked at Manhattan's since 2011 and, according to Gamache, things rarely get out of hand at the bar.

"We've hardly have any fights here or really any shenanigans of that sort," he said during an interview one afternoon at Manhattan's, a few hours before it opened.

Manhattan Pizza & Pub is at the epicenter of Burlington's bar scene, surrounded by other popular late-night spots. Police maintain a strong presence in the area, especially at last call. Gamache said he's seen lots of arrests.

"I can honestly say 98% of the time I don't have an issue with how it's going down," he said.

Then Gamache saw body camera footage of officers arresting the Meli brothers, which took place a few doors down from Manhattan's. The Meli brothers, who are black, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging police brutality.

More from VPR: Lawsuits Allege Police Brutality By Burlington Officers, Videos Show Encounters [May 3]

The incident took place in September 2018 after the brothers got into a confrontation at a bar and police were called.

Body camera footage shows Sgt. Jason Bellavance approaching Jeremie Meli, who's arguing with a bartender outside on the street. Bellavance walks up and, without saying anything, shoves Meli. Meli's head slams into a wall, knocking him unconscious, according to the lawsuit.

"After watching the video and seeing how the officer approached Jeremie and just shoved him against the wall without even announcing himself or any presence at all, that left a pretty big pit in my stomach," Gamache said.

A Burlington police car parked in downtown Burlington. The city council in June appointed three black men to the citizen commission that oversees Burlington police.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Gamache, who plays soccer with one of the Meli brothers, started going to Burlington City Council meetings and heard about the police commission. Gamache applied for an open seat, and in June he was appointed to the seven-member panel.

The commission's role is advisory; they give the department feedback on new policies and initiatives. More recently, the group has been tasked with reviewing citizen complaints and officer misconduct. The group is allowed to review confidential material, behind closed doors, and can offer recommendations — though the chief makes the final call about any discipline.

The commission reviewed the incident with the Meli brothers after it took place. At the time, the group agreed with Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo's decision to suspend Bellavance for several days, but keep him on the force.

Gamache, who wasn't on the commission at the time, didn't think the punishment for Bellavance was enough, but he said he understood "there wasn't more that they could have done."

At this early stage, Gamache doesn't have specific policies ideas, but broadly, he wants to restore trust between police and the community.

"If there's not trust between the two … then we're not going to get anywhere and we're just going to have more and more problems," he said.

The other new commissioners, Yuol Herjok and Mark Hughes, agree.

"If it's me helping my community understanding the way the law works so we that can be better served, then that's what I'm willing to do." — Yuol Herjok, Burlington police commissioner

Herjok, a social worker, came to Vermont from South Sudan 14 years ago. He wants to close the gap between the department and the new American community.

"If by me helping police understand our community so they can better serve us, then I am willing to do that," Herjok said. "If it's me helping my community understanding the way the law works so we that can be better served, then that's what I'm willing to do."

Hughes, who has a military and community activist background, said the addition of black and brown voices on the commission is good, but he cautioned that it won't completely solve the problem.

Hughes also thinks the commission should expand its role beyond examining allegations of officer misconduct, looking at things like the force's diversity and if it is operating at capacity.

"So they're management decisions, but … I would imagine that there's some kind of oversight capacity that could be operated within to assist or work alongside of law enforcement," Hughes said.

Mark Hughes and Jabulani Gamache listen to a presentation at a recent police commission meeting.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Burlington Police Deputy Chief Jon Murad said the department is looking forward to working with the new commissioners, saying they're "people who support the police, but want the police to do as good a job as the police can."

On a recent July evening, six of the seven members of the commission sat in a mostly empty and slightly chilly room at the police department; it was the second meeting for the new commissioners.

Seventy-five year-old Martha Molpus, a resident of the New North End, walked forward and sat in front of the group, pulling the microphone toward her. The purpled-haired former social worker said she was happy about the "new representation of the community."

“If there's anything the police commissioners would like the public to be able to help with, to do to help, that would be information that would be very welcome to me and I know to others,” Molpus told the commission.

In a brief interview after the meeting, Molpus said she thought the group was now a better representation of the city and that it bodes well for the success of the commission.