Free Press investigation: How did Burlington police rack up their respective use of force incidents?

Burlington police officers used physical force in encounters with community members about 25% less in 2019 as compared with the year prior, according to data compiled from use of force records obtained by the Burlington Free Press.

The department handed over almost 300 pages of documents detailing officers’ reports about the force they used on citizens in 2019. The reports show that Burlington police officers used physical force in just over 140 incidents throughout the year. 

Burlington police consider “force” any action by an officer beyond verbal commands and compliant handcuffing — including pointing a Taser or a firearm at a person. Officers are required to file a report for each person on whom they used force to describe the legal justification for why force was used and what type.

Police incidents of force have fallen under greater scrutiny in the aftermath of violence against people of color throughout the U.S. — including the killings of a number of Black and brown citizens. In Burlington, this has caused racial justice advocates to renew calls for accountability in instances where they say people of color were subjected to excessive force.

The number of times an officer uses force depends on any number of factors, including the officer’s shift and area of the city they patrol, according to Deputy Chief Matt Sullivan. Several lawsuits and racial justice advocates have alleged that racial bias also plays into some officers’ decisions on when to use physical force.

By the numbers

Data compiled by the Burlington Free Press using the records show that 61 out of almost 95 sworn officers in 2019 used force on at least one member of the community. The rank of the officers who used force ranged from patrol officers to a deputy chief. 

The highest level of force available to officers, firing a gun, was never used in 2019. 

Uses of force by a single officer did not exceed 18 people. Five officers used force on 10 people or more in 2019. Almost 10 officers used force on one person each throughout the year.

Related: Use of force: Burlington police records show 1/3 of incidents involved non-arrest situations

Most officers switch shifts or beats every four months, though there are some who remain assigned to the same place as a community policing tactic, Sullivan said. The Free Press pulled examples from the data showing officers that had many instances of force versus few, and filled in the details of their shifts and beats with information from Sullivan:

  • Officer Connor Palmateer, who used force on the highest number of people (18), was assigned to the evening shifts for the first two-thirds of the year, first downtown and then in the Old North End. More than 75% of his incidents occurred from January to August. His use of force incidents began dropping off a bit in the final third of the year when he was assigned to the downtown beat again, but during the daytime.
  • This was the same for Officer Meaghan O’Leary, who used force on 17 people and whose shifts were almost identical to Palmateer’s throughout the year.
  • Officer Erin Bartle ranked at the median number (4) for uses of force in 2019. She had taken a leave of absence during the first third of the year, then was assigned to the downtown beat during the evening shift. Toward the end of the year, she was on a swing shift where Sullivan said she was likely mostly doing foot patrol, but she wasn’t assigned to a particular beat within the city. Three-quarters of Bartle’s use of force incidents occurred while she was assigned to the downtown beat, the data show. 
  • Cpl. Jennifer Cousins had only one use of force incident in 2019. She spent the entire year assigned to the Hill Section of the city during the day shift. Sullivan said she has been assigned to this shift and beat for at least several years. Her single use of force incident was one that drew 10 officers when there was a call about a suspect who appeared to have a rifle and had disappeared into the woods, according to the records.

Factors that can affect use of force numbers

The Burlington Free Press attempted to speak to officers who ranked high, in the middle, and low as far as the number of times they used force in 2019 to illuminate the circumstances around those incidents. Out of seven officers, one expressed interest in speaking, but didn’t get back in touch in time for the Free Press’ deadline. Instead, the Burlington Free Press spoke to Sullivan about factors that may increase or lessen officers’ potential to be involved in use-of-force situations. 

According to Sullivan, an officer’s shift and the area of the city to which they’re assigned can mean they’re seeing a higher or lower potential for use of force situations. Police department statistics show that officers assigned to downtown Burlington during the evening hours — especially during the weekends when bars are closing — will likely have a higher number of use of force incidents. The Old North End is typically the second most busy when it comes to use of force, he said. 

More: What does Burlington Police Department’s use of force report show?

On the other hand, the New North End and South End tend to be quieter beats, especially during the day, Sullivan said.

An officer’s rank or assignment might also affect how often they’re involved in incidents that may involve some sort of physical force. For example, a patrol officer who is out on the street during his or her shift and responding to evolving incidents would likely have more exposure than a sergeant, who typically responds to a call to supervise officers, Sullivan said.

Detectives, who are often involved in executing search warrants, would have a higher chance of being involved in incidents where they are using a high level of force, such as pointing a gun, Sullivan added.

“When you execute warrants, you’re executing with your firearm out because you’re entering unknown situations,” Sullivan said. “That’s standard operating procedure.” 

How does Burlington Police Department monitor for officer misconduct?

After an incident, Burlington police officers are required to write reports about each person on whom they used force. Sometimes, one officer may write multiple reports for one incident if there were multiple people on whom force was used.

Once their reports are complete, officers must then alert an internal use of force group that a new report has been filed, Sullivan said. This group, which reviews every report filed, is currently comprised of four officers, including the department’s lead use of force instructor, Cpl. Dave Clements, he said. 

The group looks for red flags, including whether an inappropriate amount of force was used in a particular incident given the circumstances. Sometimes, they will send reports back to the officer to ask for more detail.  

Related: Volunteers wanted: Burlington task force will look at police in schools

Does the use of force group look for racial disparities?

The system through which officers’ reports are documented changed in January 2019 after the software for the old system stopped being supported technologically, Sullivan said. While reviewing the 2019 documents, the Free Press noticed the new system does not track the race of the subject, and officers are not consistent in citing the subject’s race in their narratives. The former system did track race.

National events that have led to the deaths of people of color by use of force have spurred conversations and the public’s desire for closer scrutiny police conduct around this issue. Sullivan said that the review group can always go cross-reference use of force reports with details about the case contained in the police department’s general case documentation system.

“If there’s something concerning, they certainly would,” Sullivan said.

But, if race isn’t specified on the document, would the group necessarily think to check for a pattern?

“I’ve probably reviewed more use of force reports than any other officer who has worked at the Burlington Police Department over the last 20 years,” said Sullivan, who was in the use of force group until January 2019. “No racial disparity has jumped out at me as far as an individual officer behaving in an inappropriate way towards a race.”

However, Sullivan said, data from 2012 to 2018 shows that there is a racial disparity around use of force within the police department. In the end, Sullivan supports having a different system that would be more detailed in tracking the different elements of officer use of force — but that, he says, costs money.

How the Free Press got the records

The Burlington Free Press filed a public records request to the Burlington Police Department in early June following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The news organization asked for all officer use of force reports for the year 2019. Two days later, the Burlington Police Department and City Attorney’s Office issued a blanket denial to the request. The agencies cited exemptions in the public records law for “personal records” and “interdepartmental communications.” 

The Free Press appealed the decision to Mayor Miro Weinberger later that month, citing the part of the law that states that “records relating to management and direction of a law enforcement agency; records reflecting the initial arrest of a person … and records reflecting the charge of a person shall be public.” The Free Press also civil cited a court decision by Judge Helen Toor, which stated that “records ‘relating to an arrest’ should be broadly construed.”

Weinberger overturned the denial in early July and agreed the records should be released. 

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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