Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Cassidy, of Colchester, a civil rights attorney.
I welcome the reawakening of the struggle for racial and social justice, both nationally and here in Vermont. I appreciate the passion and commitment of the ongoing protests seeking justice in the local law enforcement community generally and in the Burlington Police Department specifically.
However, as a longtime civil rights attorney who has done social justice movement work and who primarily litigates on behalf of prisoners in cases of brutality, excessive force, and other types of abuse, I strongly oppose the current demand for the termination of the three offending BPD officers. I have no doubt the demand is well-intentioned, and given the horrible ways these officers appear to have behaved the impulse to advance such a demand is understandable.
However, my carefully considered legal advice is that the demand for termination of these officers is deeply misguided and manifestly flawed. Thus, as a social justice ally, I implore activists to withdraw this demand and instead reframe the goals of this struggle to what I believe is not only a legally sound and wiser course of action but an imperative to achieve real justice.
Unpleasant as it may be to hear, it would be legally impermissible under constitutional rights of due process to terminate these officers at this time based on the prior allegations against them. A disciplinary procedure — flawed, ineffectual, and anemic as it appears to have been — was followed and cannot be undone or redone differently. Just as the individual who may have committed the most despicable criminal acts is entitled to legal due process, including being protected from double jeopardy, so too are these officers, regardless of how inexcusable their behavior may have been. It is too late to punish them or otherwise take adverse employment actions against them. These are basic precepts of our constitutional and judicial and legal systems, and ones that anyone genuinely concerned with issues of justice should embrace. There are and can be no exceptions for fair and just process, and it would be through carving out such an exception here that our constitutional system and democracy would truly begin to die.
What this means is that dismissing Officers Corrow, Bellavance, and Campbell now would be patently unlawful. As such, it would afford these officers viable legal claims against the city, entitling them to, and very likely resulting in, significant monetary compensation for lost future wages and benefits.
I have read reports of individuals supporting the continuing demand that these officers are fired, arguing that they do not care if it would be unlawful or would subject the city to significant legal damages. One individual reportedly even suggested that such payment could be chalked up to the “costs of reparations.” I’m sorry, but advancing such a stance is seriously careless thinking about notions of reparative justice. The monetary compensation and so-called “costs of reparations” would entail not payments to any of the victims of these officers’ brutality but an undeserved windfall to these officers for their unlawful termination! Surely, this is not what anyone would want to see happen, except perhaps Officers Corrow, Bellavance, and Campbell. Again I ask, is this genuinely what you want to achieve and support? I most surely do not, which is why I implore protesters to cease this inane demand for the officers’ belated termination. It would be the travesty to reward them for their despicable behavior.
Instead of demanding these officers’ termination, I urge the activists to demand the genuine police reform we need and that will be a positive force for change. We need deep systemic reform to address not only racist and abusive cops but to respond to and replace the law enforcement culture that fosters and permits such reprehensible behavior. We also need to retool the very role of our police, substituting mental health providers and social workers where we currently deploy officers who are too often inadequately trained, poorly supervised, and overly aggressive. The time is ripe to accomplish so much, yet it would be a shame for that to all be lost by a futile and ill-advised effort to belatedly fire these three officers.
For those who may express concern that if my suggested course is followed, these three officers will remain on the force and present an ongoing danger, I say this: do not worry. These officers have been publicly identified and have demonstrated they are unfit for the task and role of police officer in our community. They know that if they so much as misstep one more time, real justice through a revamped disciplinary process will be brought swiftly to their door. It is up to us to insist upon the creation of a robust supervisory and disciplinary process capable of doing precisely that. Only then could officers be justly terminated without any monetary compensation, and instead with financial penalty and hopefully forever be precluded from a further role in law enforcement. Such a reformed disciplinary process will serve the crucial role of making clear to every other officer on the force that the days of engaging in abuse and misconduct without real consequence are over.
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Editor’s note: The author is unrelated to Rich Cassidy, the attorney for the police union.