George Floyd’s death reinvigorated signers of BLM petition. How are Burlington police responding?

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Protesters marched for George Floyd, who died this past week in custody of Minneapolis police. An officer has been charged with third-degree murder. Burlington Free Press

A year-old petition calling for the termination of several Burlington police officers involved in incidents of force against black residents has regained steam online in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

The petition, which was created in May 2019 by nonprofit advocacy group Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, asks that the police department fire officers Joseph Corrow, Jason Bellavance and Cory Campbell. It also demands that the officers be prohibited from being re-hired in Chittenden County.

As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had been signed by more than 67,000 people. The petition has more than doubled in signatures since Floyd’s death. Renewed calls to fire the officers were also voiced by protesters during a demonstration last week outside the police department.

Burlington Police Department said it is aware of the petition and has received communications from both Burlingtonians and non-residents about the officers recently.

“All three incidents were reviewed by prosecutors, by external investigators, and by the BPD,” a frequently asked questions page posted Thursday on the department’s website stated. “None was found to be criminal. Discipline was imposed in all three incidents, in accordance with the City of Burlington’s rules for employees and union contracts.”

Police: Officers won’t receive further punishment without new evidence

Earlier this week, interim police Chief Jennifer Morrison was asked by a reporter during a briefing about one of the officers, Bellavance. Bellavance had been accused of excessive force in a September 2018 incident after a man he shoved without warning hit his head against the ground and was knocked unconscious, a lawsuit stated.

“This is an incident that is well behind us,” Morrison said during the briefing, adding that his suspension of more than two weeks was “unprecedented” compared with her previous tenure at the department.

“The more we look backwards, the less energy we’re putting into looking forwards,” Morrison said. She added, “It’s time for us to start growing from these incidents instead of turning around and looking at them every time an excessive force case somewhere else in the country comes up.”

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Police footage shows Officer Jason Bellavance shove Jeremie Meli who falls, hitting his head against a wall. Meli is now suing. Burlington Free Press

The petitioners say that all three officers “displayed a pattern of violence without provocation or just cause.” The officers are also parties to ongoing lawsuits filed last year against the city. 

The department stated on its website that no additional facts or evidence had been brought forth that would cause the agency to reopen the employment actions against the three officers.

“Employment law (and fundamental fairness) does not allow the City to go back and impose additional discipline,” the department stated.

It added, “All three officers remain employed by and are valued members of the BPD.”

What has Burlington Police Department done after George Floyd’s death?

Some community members criticized the department’s discipline of the officers and Morrison’s recent remarks during a Burlington Police Commission meeting this week. One of those community members was Trish O’Kane, a professor at the University of Vermont, who said she was “deeply disappointed” by the chief’s comments.

“I think that that shows a lack of historical understanding that what happened last year is on the spectrum with Minneapolis, and it’s a historical spectrum,” O’Kane said. “Unless we understand the history and look at the roots of racism, we’re not going to solve these issues and we’re not going to be able to move forward.”

During the same meeting, however, Morrison spoke about the steps the department has taken since Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. One of those steps had been announced at the Mayor’s briefing on Monday — that two new orders were in place regarding use of force incidents:

  • All personnel are required to intervene when they witness excessive use of force, misconduct or another violation of a department policy or rule.
  • De-escalation should always be prioritized in any use-of-force scenario if safe and officers must be aware of their own ability to increase the level of force needed, taking care to avoid any unnecessary escalations. 

Morrison said the department had taken the following additional steps:

  • Department heads put out a training refresher on handcuffing on the ground and the use of neck restraints to all officers. They highlighted information that was related to the Minneapolis incident as things inconsistent with Burlington officers’ training. 
  • Morrison and the two deputy chiefs met with department lieutenants to discuss the incident and asked them to keep the Minneapolis lessons at the front of their minds. 
  • Morrison circulated a Washington Post article on the importance of culture in police training and in instilling a “duty to intervene” mindset. Each lieutenant was asked to meet with sergeants and their direct reports to review and discuss the article. The sergeants will do the same thing with officers at roll call as a training opportunity. 
  • Morrison directed the training division to incorporate the “duty to intervene” situation into scenario-based hands-on training. Until hands-on training can occur, trainers will seek out videos to share with officers that identify situations where they should intervene.

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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