Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington condemns the police brutality of the Burlington Police Department (BPD) – both the brutality shown in body camera footage released in the last week, and ongoing brutality that continues to go insufficiently recorded or documented. The footage from two police incidents on September 8th and September 9th, 2018 reveal unprovoked attacks by police officers on three Black men1. These assaults, along with the homicide of Douglas Kilburn at the hands of one of the involved officers2, make it clearer than ever that the BPD is bringing danger into our community. In fact the presence of officers Joseph Corrow, Jason Bellavance, and Cory Campbell still threatens the safety of our community today.
Police brutality is nothing new to the Burlington Police Department. We hold up these three officers, Corrow, Bellavance, and Campbell, as examples of the prevalence of violence and excessive use of force in BPD. Rather than being a few “bad apples,” they demonstrate a pattern of behavior that is indicative of not just the culture of violence and racial bias within the BPD, but also reflects that of the broader US culture. This pattern has resulted in similar incidents in other police departments across the nation, reflecting the deeper, unaddressed history of how the policing institution is an oppressive structure.
The legal system itself, which the police uphold, is designed to maintain the power dynamics that oppress primarily poor people of color in the United States. The first “police” in the United States included “slave patrols” who would chase down escaped slaves to return them to their white “owners.”3 Beyond the institution of slavery, examples include police upholding the “laws” by arresting Black people for things such as loitering, unemployment, and theft. Their forced labor was, and still is, used by the state in exploitative and dangerous convict leasing programs for state-owned and private companies.
Although the narrative is that police are upholding laws to maintain an acceptable moral standard for society, this has never been the case and is certainly not the case today. Since the 1980s, the “War on Drugs” has given increasingly militarized police forces the license to search, seize, and turn over so-called offenders in the name of the law. Combined with the system of mass incarceration, this process has separated thousands of people from their families and communities, in addition to causing them bodily harm. This culture of white supremacy in which all US police officers are inevitably steeped becomes weaponized against black and brown people in moments of stress and escalation.
Here in Vermont, freedom is being legally taken away from people of color due to the over-policing, racial-profiling, inequitable detentions and court diversion options, as well as the “Rule of Law,” where multiple offenses lead to “no choice” arrests and prosecutions. There is little to no care or concern for the needs and wellness of “offenders,” including food, mental health, education, healing, and community restoration.
The institution of the US police does not only kill and dehumanize marginalized groups and individuals repeatedly targeted by the police. Working for violently oppressive and dehumanizing systems harms and dehumanizes the officers themselves, as well as bystanders who witness violent police encounters. Just as the profession of coal mining often leads to severe illness, physical disability, and death, we argue that the profession of policing causes physical and mental harm, often resulting in unaddressed PTSD, domestic violence, and suicide4. As such, our call is to take collective action to work toward minimizing the need for police officers, and ultimately eliminating the institution of police as we know it. Rather than working for reforms that embed police deeper in our society, such as more training and additional officers, we want police officers replaced with more social workers and other safer alternatives5.
Chief of Police Brandon Del Pozo argued in his press conference on May 3 that the BPD has taken more measures than other police departments to address excessive use of force and racial disparities in policing6. The measures he cited included implementing body cameras, as well as providing implicit bias and de-escalation training. Clearly, the additional training and equipment have not prevented violent encounters like the ones seen on the body camera footage from last September or the recent homicide of Douglas Kilburn. No amount of implicit bias or de-escalation training will change the role of the police or the effect of policing on targeted populations. More police officers, as Del Pozo has recommended, will not make our communities safer.
It is obvious to anyone watching the videos that body slamming, shoving, and forcing people to the ground is not morally acceptable. Although police have a position of power that allows them to commit violence legally, their consistent patterns of violence against poor people and people of color is not acceptable or justified. We cannot rely on the rule of law, which values “law and order” over human lives, to give us our moral code. We also cannot trust the laws to protect us from the people who enforce them. Instead, we must hold our community leaders accountable for introducing improved systems that truly achieve justice and do not rely on the broken system of policing.
In addition to the need for structural change, those of us who are not police officers or part of the legal “justice” system must commit to community advocacy to end police brutality, eliminate the need for policing as we know it, and implement alternatives that increase safety in our community. We must all take responsibility for how we interact with these institutions and each other. This includes seeing and acknowledging the risk of violent and irreversible outcomes of calling the police, particularly for Black people, and “thinking twice” before making that call. We must consider, who is really in more danger? Because of local and national histories of abuse, it is necessary to instill and maintain a healthy suspicion of police departments. We know that we cannot abolish the police overnight. Therefore, our question is: what can be done now to ultimately help decrease the number of police and substitute healthier and safer alternatives for justice in our communities? Our demands are as follows:
- We demand the termination of Officers Cory Campbell, Jason Bellavance, and Joseph Corrow from the Burlington Police Department, as they are a threat to the safety of the community. They have displayed a pattern of violence without provocation or just cause, particularly targeted towards Black men.
- We demand these officers not be re-hired by another state or local department or agency in Chittenden County. Their abuse of power demonstrates that they are unsafe and should not be in any position of governmental authority in the county.
- We demand that all police operating in Chittenden County wear and consistently use body cameras, and that the free release of that footage to the public become mandatory. This includes the local police departments, the sheriff’s office, and the Vermont State Police that have jurisdiction over towns that do not have a local police force.
- We demand that the Burlington Police Department halt the hiring of new officers, and instead employ more social workers for the community. What our community needs is more support, not more violence. As the police officers of the BPD have shown an inability to de-escalate and an instinct of violence, their presence does not promote safety in our community.
Dear Community Members, please stand with us by signing this petition: