Burlington Mayor Hopes To Reach 'Substantive Resolution' With Protestors
Protesters have been camping out in Burlington's Battery Park and holding daily demonstrations for over three weeks now. And while Mayor Miro Weinberger says he’d prefer coming to a resolution with the demonstrators, he won’t rule out removing them from the park.
The protestors are calling for three specific Burlington police officers who used force against residents in the last two years to lose their jobs. The city has made it clear that those officers have already been disciplined and firing them would violate the police union contract.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: First off, protesters have made it clear that they're not leaving until these three officers are no longer on the force. The city's made it clear that the officers can't be fired. So how do you plan to move forward with this central demand of protesters?
Miro Weinberger: Well, Henry, I don't think firing is an option. It's as you said, it would be a violation of our contract, which means it would be against the law. And I think that speaks to how it would be fundamentally unfair. We need to treat our employees properly. They have a right to expect that disciplinary matters will be handled through a process that's deliberative and fair. And that's what we've done here.
The issue that has come up in recent days of possible voluntary buyouts is not something that we use very often in city government. And it is, frankly, not something that we had considered with respect to these three officers until this latest round of protests. I do have concerns about buyouts, the precedent that they set and the possibility that that could undermine our officers and their belief that they're going to be treated … in a fair manner, as opposed to decisions about them being made subject to the will of public popular opinion.
I'm concerned about the kind of funds that would be required to buy out all three officers, especially in pandemic times that we're in, and what the tradeoffs, when money is very tight, would be involved.
So if not firing or buyouts, I mean, what's the option here?
Well I was finishing just to say, we have had a couple of meetings with the council. I don't have a final announcement to make on this, to you on this program. There's some distinctions, important distinctions between the different officers. And we may not reach the final conclusion with all of them.
I think we will have definitive word on that in the coming days. We need to bring this to resolution. The council and I met on this a couple times. As you've seen, we've had executive sessions, and I think we're nearing finality on it.
Regardless of exactly what happens there, what I see as a much greater area of common ground and one that I think many Burlingtonians want us to get to, is a forward-looking conversation that addresses the kind of larger issues that are at stake in the protests of racial justice, and ensuring that we have done everything we can to root systemic racism out of policing, that we do everything we can to ensure that going forward, events like these, which are rare, are even rarer, and that when they do happen, that the discipline that is meted out gets greater public acceptance and is more in line with what Burlingtonians feel is right and just.
Well, so what would some of those changes be? I mean, it seems like you're referring to some changes in how police officers are disciplined, use-of-force policies, changes in how body cameras are used, I know that's been a demand of the protesters. I mean, are those things all on the table?
Well, they are. One of the things that you listed actually is not on the table because we've done it recently, which is we did quite significantly change our use-of-force policy, in part in response to the concerns over these incidents.
But when I say there's much more to do, I am talking about, as the protesters have mentioned, it is basically two years to the day since a couple of these incidents took place. It is clear that part of what went wrong with those incidents is that the body camera footage was not released promptly.
There was only an ad hoc policy in place that didn't create clarity on exactly when that should be released. And I think the way in which the videos came out sort of maximized distrust. And we shouldn't have that going forward.
We need a clear policy that the police commission has approved, that the public buys into that dictates that body camera events will be released in a promptly and an orderly way. And it is time for that to get done. And I'll be speaking to that more in the next couple of days here, how I see that happening quickly at this point.
In terms of the protesters that are in Battery Park right now, I mean, they've established this sort of camp right across from the police department. Will you allow them to remain in the park indefinitely, and do you have any safety concerns about their presence there?
Well, I do have concerns, Henry, and I've articulated those in a letter to the protesters a week and a half ago. I thought it was important to put all the demonstrators on notice that they are doing things that break the law, and that they are breaking laws that are designed to keep everyone safe, including them. And that does raise concerns.
And we could reach the point where we need to take additional disciplinary – sorry, additional enforcement steps to make sure that those laws are being fairly and impartially applied.
What would that point be? I mean, is there a line that would be crossed or an amount of time that you would want to force protesters out of the park?
What I am very mindful of, Henry, in making that decision, is that while it is the city's job to ensure that fair and impartial application of our public safety laws, the city has other responsibilities here as well.
And the city, especially in a situation where what is being protested is in fact the city's actions and the city's law enforcement actions, and we are navigating through as a community and as a country an incredibly volatile moment that is the product of more than 400 years of racial injustice. And when cities in some cases have taken steps to enforce laws like the ones we're talking about here, that has at times led to escalation and scenes playing out that I think none of us want to see happening in Burlington.
So we certainly could reach a point where we do have to take further steps to enforce our laws. My hope, though, is that we can reach some kind of substantive resolution instead, that where the protesters feel that they have been heard and that there has been meaningful progress established that moves us, in the immediate terms closer to our ideals and where we want to be in terms of racial justice, and that signals our commitment to continue the hard work we've already embarked on to root out systemic racism, improve our policing in many areas, that signals our attention to get that done.
So that's the resolution I'm hoping we can get to instead.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.