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City Council Approves Buyout Of Burlington Cop After A Month Of Protests

People in park stand with a sign that says "Fire Bellavance, Campbell, Corrow."
Abagael Giles
/
VPR File
Protesters have been camped at Battery Park in front of the police station for a month, demanding the firing of three police officers. On Monday night, the city council approved a buyout of one of the officers, Sgt. Jason Bellavance.

The Burlington City Council voted almost unanimously Monday night to approve a buyout of a city police officer whose firing has been a central demand of racial justice protesters for the past month.

Sgt. Jason Bellavance will leave the department on Oct. 5, according to the resolution approved by the council. The deal includes three years pay, which is about $300,000, three years of credit towards retirement and health insurance for 18 months.

City Councilor Zorya Hightower said while the resolution doesn’t meet all the demands of protesters, she hoped it would mark a turning point for the city.

“I hope that this confirms our resolve not to make those same mistakes again, to act boldly when we should have, to make sure that we are listening to the community,” Hightower said.

More from VPR: Progressive City Councilor On Protests, Policing In Burlington 

The council approved the deal, 11 to 1, with only Councilor Ali Dieng voting against it. Dieng said he believed there’s more the city could be doing to address protesters’ demands, and he thought the resolution “put taxpayers in jeopardy.”

"I hope that this confirms our resolve not to make those same mistakes again, to act boldly when we should have, to make sure that we are listening to the community." — Zoraya Hightower, Progressive city councilor

Protesters have been camping in front of the police department for the past month and holding daily marches, calling for the firing of Bellavance and two other officers: Joseph Corrow and Cory Campbell.

In September 2018, Bellavance, while responding to a call about a fight downtown, shoved Jeremie Meli, who’s Black, into a wall and knocked him unconscious, according to body camera footage. Corrow was involved in a similar situation the night before. Both incidents are the subject of federal lawsuits.

More from VPR: Lawsuits Allege Police Brutality By Burlington Officers, Videos Show Encounters

Campbell, in March 2019, was in an altercation with 54-year-old Douglas Kilburn in front of the University of Vermont Medical Center. Campbell punched Kilburn in the face and Kilburn died a few days later. The medical examiner ruled Kilburn’s death a homicide.

The city had maintained that it couldn’t fire the three officers, in part because their actions were already investigated; both Corrow and Campbell’s use-of-force were deemed reasonable, though Campbell was reprimanded for using foul language. Bellavance was suspended for several days after his use-of-force was found to be unnecessary.

More from VPR: Attorney General Clears Burlington Police Officer In Douglas Kilburn Interaction

That infraction of department policy, plus Bellavance’s leadership position in the department, were factors in why the city’s decided to pursue a separation agreement according to Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Bellavance has been at the Burlington Police Department for nine and half years and spent nearly three years a patrol sergeant, according to his LinkedIn profile. In that role, he "supervised and lead teams of 5 to 25 patrol officers."

"We must apply a higher standard to our leaders." — Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

“We must apply a higher standard to our leaders,” Weinberger said. “Finally in my discussions with Burlingtonians over these past years, I’ve listened carefully and heard clearly from many who’ve expressed of the three incidents that led to this moment of community anger and discord, they find the incident regarding Sgt. Bellavance the most troubling.”

Weinberger said he will not support buyouts of the other two officers.

“Their uses of force were found to be consistent with the policy and training that were in place at the time,” Weinberger said. “To pursue separation agreements under these circumstances would set an unmanageable precedent that would challenge the department for years to come.”

"The removal of one violent officer is an important first step, but it is not nearly enough. We will continue to raise our voices and resist the current corrupt system until all violent officers are removed." — Battery Park protest statement

The protesters at Battery Park, in a written statement, celebrated the deal and said it was “the direct result of the power of the people.” The organizers also called on the Weinberger and the city council to go further:

“The removal of one violent officer is an important first step, but it is not nearly enough. We will continue to raise our voices and resist the current corrupt system until all violent officers are removed, until we have a new mechanism for Police oversight and discipline, until we create a new public safety apparatus that serves all people, until we stop criminalizing houselessness in our community, until we have dismantled systemic racism in this City. We are not going anywhere. Our fight has only just begun.”

The city will also be tackling broader policing reforms. Earlier this month the council passed a resolution that directed the charter change committee to examine changing who makes police disciplinary decisions. The council also asked the city’s police commission to study ways to institute stronger discipline for officers who use excessive force.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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