Progressives on Burlington City Council blocked the confirmation of Jon Murad as the city’s police chief Monday night despite support by half of city councilors, the city’s police union and Mayor Miro Weinberger.
By a 6-6 vote, the council’s Progressives said no to the appointment of the city’s acting police chief, citing social justice concerns and racial disparities in policing statistics.
Weinberger announced the appointment Thursday, citing Murad’s excellent record as acting chief since summer 2020, along with his lengthy prior work as a sergeant and detective for the New York Police Department — including experience as an officer in Bronx. Murad was born in Burlington and lived in Underhill before earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Harvard.
The Progressives who voted to block Murad are City Council President Max Tracy, Ward 2; Zoraya Hightower, Ward 1; Joe Magee, Ward 3; Jane Stromberg, Ward 8; Perri Freeman, Central district; and Jack Hanson, East district.
In a statement released following the meeting, Weinberger said Murad would stay on as acting chief of police, and hinted that the upcoming election in March could soon result in majority support from new council members.
“Chief Murad will be Burlington’s chief so long as he continues to serve as a full partner with the administration and the Burlington community in forging progress on our urgent public safety challenges and advancing police transformation,” the mayor said. “It is my sincere hope that at some point soon a majority of the council joins us in this critical work.”
During the lengthy public hearing ahead of Monday night’s vote, former city council president Kurt Wright spoke strongly in favor of the chief, and warned that more officers may quit if the council does not support Murad.
“I’ve spoken to a number of police officers and they have let me know that this will be the last straw for some of them. We cannot afford to continue down this path,” he said. “We need to find every way possible to enhance recruitment and retention, and supporting Chief Murad is one important action that will also add much-needed stability to a department in near crisis.”
Local resident Garrett Graff was among those who spoke out for Murad’s confirmation.
“Overhanging this chief of police search over the last two years has been the sense that … somehow with Jon you aren’t getting a candidate that’s fully committed to police reform nor someone who would care about the community and the way that it deserves to be. I strongly believe that impression is wrong,” he said.
Cliff Cooper, a resident of the city for 50 years, said it’s no longer safe for his family to stay out late in the downtown area.
“I can just tell you that our kids are 30 and 33, and we’ve warned them when they come to town to be careful going downtown and don’t stay there later because of what’s happening in this city,” he said.
Cooper added he was disturbed to learn from the Police Commission meeting the prior evening that the lack of support for police in the city is making it hard to get enough officers to carry out arrests of criminals.
But Alexandra Karambelas, a project manager for COVID Support VT, spoke out against the appointment. She said that Burlington residents are “building a consensus around the need for accountability within our policing systems.”
“We need a leader who shares this goal, who recognizes the data-supported racial bias that exists within the department and actively seeks accountability for these actions, none of which has happened under his tenure,” she said.
Karambelas said because a higher percentage of minorities are involved in incidents with police, that’s sufficient evidence that the police are “directing” their law enforcement towards these groups.
“He has refused to acknowledge racial disparities within the department’s policing,” she said, adding that Murad has denied that racial bias is the known cause of a higher percentage of arrests and uses of force against black suspects.
In the past Murad has pointed out that when it comes to ticketing, for example, officers get an unfair bad rap from the data. He noted his officers are identifying vehicles that are speeding or making suspicious moves, and that they are “seeing a car behave in a certain way, not a driver.”
At the meeting Monday night, Murad said if he finds that racial bias is what is causing disparities in arresting minorities, he “will take action on that.”
“What I see is not bias in the hearts of officers,” he said.
Amanda Skehan spoke in favor of Murad largely due to his support for the Restorative Justice program which aims to help nonviolent offenders participate in various community services to avoid or reduce time in prison systems.
“It’s important to have a chief that recognizes the usefulness of that, and the value of embracing that even more so going forward,” she said.
Weinberger wrote in his endorsement letter that Murad has excelled in the face of adversity.
“He has served the Department with distinction and for the last year and a half, has led the Burlington Police Department as Acting Chief through one of the most challenging periods in its 150-year history. At a time when so many are stepping away from the challenges of policing and the contentiousness of the current public arena, Chief Murad is stepping up.”