Police chief quits over Twitter trolling

  • Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger answers questions after announcing that Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo has resigned in Burlington on Monday, December 16, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

  • FILE - In this April, 10, 2018, file photo, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo speaks during a news conference in Burlington , Vt., The chief told The Associated Press on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, that he used an anonymous Twitter account in July to troll a government critic, and that he took six weeks of medical leave to seek mental health treatment after telling his story to the mayor. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File) Lisa Rathke

VtDigger
Published: 12/16/2019 10:13:22 PM
Modified: 12/16/2019 10:13:17 PM

BURLINGTON — Police Chief Brandon del Pozo stepped down Monday following the revelation that he created an anonymous Twitter account to belittle a local activist.

Mayor Miro Weinberger announced del Pozo’s resignation at a noon news conference that the mayor’s office had scheduled earlier that morning. Weinberger said the chief informed him Sunday evening he would resign.

A voicemail message and text left for the chief were not returned before publication.

The controversy didn’t end there.

Weinberger initially announced Deputy Chief Jan Wright would be the acting police chief. But then it came to light that Wright too had operated an anonymous social media account to make comments and engage citizens about department policy and practice.

Weinberger released a statement at just before 7 p.m. saying that Wright had been demoted back to being a deputy. Jon Murad, another deputy, will now serve as Burlington’s police chief, the mayor said.

Weinberger’s statement revealed that Wright had told him after Monday’s press conference that she had operated a Facebook account under the name “Lori Spicer,” which discussed the department.

“While Deputy Chief Wright’s situation may be very different than Chief del Pozo’s, given the circumstances the department is facing, I found the failure to raise this issue with me in the lead-up to today to constitute a lapse in judgement,” Weinberger said in the statement.

Del Pozo, who was appointed to the position in 2015, admitted in an interview with Seven Days on Thursday that he created the anonymous “@WinkleWatchers” Twitter account to troll local activist Charles Winkleman. Del Pozo had lied to the newspaper when it approached him in July and asked if he was behind the account.

Weinberger placed del Pozo on a six-week family and medical leave in late July after the chief told Weinberger he was behind the account. Del Pozo suffered a serious brain injury in June 2018 in a bike crash, and attributed his behavior to the injuries he sustained in that crash.

In his resignation letter, Del Pozo wrote that he would look back on his tenure in Burlington with “intense feelings of pride and accomplishment.”

Del Pozo wrote that he was proud of the department’s work to fight the opioid crisis, pushing for reforms at the Vermont Police Academy and reducing racial disparities in traffic stops. The department apprehended every suspect who shot or killed another human in Burlington during his tenure, he wrote.

“Our work saved lives, helped the profession innovate, and made the city a better place,” he wrote.

The department has faced scrutiny this year after a handful of high-profile use-of-force cases have come to light. Brothers Albin, Charlie and Jeremie Meli, and Mabior Jok filed federal lawsuits alleging excessive force against the department in May, and body camera footage released by the department showed officers pushing and tackling the men.

The department disproportionately uses force on black residents, a report compiled by the department shows.

Additionally, Douglas Kilburn died days after getting punched by Officer Cory Campbell, and the medical examiner ruled that Kilburn would not have died if Campbell had not punched him. Body camera footage showed Kilburn throwing the first punch after becoming agitated by Campbell’s swearing, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan decided not to bring charges against Campbell.

Del Pozo and Weinberger contested the medical examiner’s findings to Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine, a decision that Kilburn’s family and Scott administration officials criticized.

Del Pozo wrote in his letter that he was planning to continue writing a book about American policing that he had been working on before taking the job in Burlington. He wrote that he was imminently going to receive a Ph.D in political philosophy and aspired to establish a research center for the study of policing and public health.

“These challenges and others lie before me, and I feel the best way to advance the state of American policing and find personal fulfillment will now be to pursue them,” he wrote.

Weinberger explanation

Weinberger praised del Pozo’s record as chief during his Monday press conference.

“It was an honor and privilege to serve with Chief del Pozo, and we wish him well in all of his future endeavors,” he said. “I will miss him greatly, and I’m sure Burlington will as well.”

Weiberger defended his decision to place del Pozo on leave and not disclose to the council, police commission or public about del Pozo’s behavior until Winkleman outlined his suspicions on his blog last week and Seven Days approached Weinberger to ask him about it.

“I’m at peace with the decisions I have made,” Weinberger said. “I think I took every step conscious of the competing interests before us, I took every step trying to do what was best for the city, for the department and for a member of my team. I hope the public sees I was acting with integrity in making some challenging choices.”

Weinberger said when it became clear that del Pozo’s actions were linked to a mental health condition, he decided to treat the chief as he would any other city employee

“We attempted to protect his medical privacy,” he said. “This is an important value that we hold in this community, and we hold as city policy. I know it’s a value that is often unsatisfying to the media and to the public because it protects employee privacy at the expense of transparency.”

Del Pozo told Weinberger what he had done on July 28, a Sunday evening. On July 29, Weinberger placed del Pozo on administrative leave and asked del Pozo to hand in his gun and badge.

Weinberger said he would have to check when del Pozo had been moved from administrative leave to Family and Medical Leave. Chief of Staff Jordan Redell emailed the media Aug. 2, a Friday, at 5:23 p.m. announcing that del Pozo was on leave.

Wenberger said he did not announce that del Pozo was on administrative leave because there was an open investigation into del Pozo.

“I certainly don’t think we would release information about any officer and mistakes they have made until we fully understood the situation and understood all the relevant facts,” he said.

Weinberger said he was aware that del Pozo had lied to Seven Days about being behind the account.

“I was aware of the misstatement to (Seven Days reporter) Courtney (Lamdin) and the fact that was out there uncorrected weighed on me,” he said. “Ultimately, we decided there was no way to correct that or raise the issue without bringing us immediately into this realm of protected information that we were trying to protect the chief from.”

Weinberger apologized to Winkleman on behalf of the city, and said he didn’t think there would have been a way to apologize to Winkleman before the issue became public without violating del Pozo’s medical privacy.

Winkleman wrote on his blog that he suspected that del Pozo had complained to the Howard Center, Winkleman’s employer, about Winkleman’s social media behavior.

City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said the city’s investigation revealed that Sonny Provetto, a consultant for the police department, was behind the complaint and there was no evidence that del Pozo had played a part in that complaint.

Winkleman said later Monday that he was curious if Weinberger or del Pozo knew about Provetto’s complaint. He said he didn’t feel better knowing a department contractor was behind the complaint.

“It’s concerning that my livelihood can be so easily attacked and I am very grateful to have AFSCME local 1674 or else I would not have come forward and risk losing my job and all the stress,” he said.

Provetto did not respond to a request for comment.

Reactions

Wright, the acting chief, said she would work to rebuild trust during her tenure.

“I will work as best I can with my employees here to try to build trust again,” she said. “That’s an issue that we have to work out within our halls, and we’ll do the best we can to work with members of the public.”

Councilor Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said del Pozo’s decision to resign was a critical first step toward rebuilding trust. But Tracy said Weinberger was evading responsibility for his actions.

“What we heard just now from the mayor was that he did nothing wrong,” he said. “It is clear to me that in failing to notify the city council, to notify the police commission and to meet his statutory responsibility to report executive police misconduct, that he didn’t provide necessary transparency on a crucial issue.”

Vermont law mandates that law enforcement agencies must report any complaints of “unprofessional conduct” committed by the executive officer of that agency to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.

Blackwood said Friday that the city believes that del Pozo’s conduct does not fall under the definition of unprofessional conduct laid out in the statute.

Tracy said Weinberger should have asked the chief to correct the record with Seven Days and apologize to Winkleman once he became aware of del Pozo’s actions.

Weinberger said that he was surprised that the Progressive Party tweeted calling for del Pozo’s resignation Monday morning.

“I told them last night the chief was resigning, and they still felt the need to pile on this morning and call for his resignation,” he said. “I thought that was particularly cruel.”

Josh Wronski, the chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, said that the Progressive Party steering committee discussed the issue at a meeting Sunday night and was not aware of del Pozo’s pending resignation.

Tracy said he was aware the chief was resigning but Weinberger had asked the councilors to keep it confidential.

“This is him trying to change the subject, trying to shift focus from the impropriety of his actions and the coverup in which his administration engaged,” he said.

Councilor Brian Pine, P-Ward 3, said he thought Weinberger should have told the council about what had happened.

“There’s 12 citizens on the council, and if we had been involved in an executive session, perhaps the perspective of those 12 councilors could have helped inform the administration in a path that may have resulted in a better outcome,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20, I don’t want to say we know that, but that’s one of the reasons there are 12 of us representing the entire city.”

Council President Kurt Wright said he was sad to see del Pozo step aside.

“I just feel sadness for the city, the chief, and his family that it ended up coming to this, over an admittedly serious mistake compounded by the error in judgment of lying to the reporter,” he said.

Wright said that he would have advised Weinberger to share the information with the council, police commission and public if possible.

“I do, however, want to be understanding to the fact that when it comes to medical leave certified by doctors, there is a process that needs to be followed, and they cannot violate that,” he said.

Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, also said del Pozo’s resignation marked a sad day for the city.

“The chief certainly disappointed us, but disappointed himself most of all,” she said.

“I also don’t think people should be judged by their worst day, and he’s done a lot of good things for this community.”

Wright said the issue would be discussed at Monday night’s council meeting.




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