Who Controls Policing Policy in Richmond? It’s Complicated

On Monday, January 4, the Richmond Selectboard logged on to its first meeting of the year. Dominating the agenda was a discussion of Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, a contentious issue that swelled the virtual gathering to the platform’s maximum capacity of 100 people.

It was among the highest turnouts the Selectboard has ever seen, said Town Manager Josh Arneson. That’s due, in part, to members of local group Richmond Racial Equity (RRE), which formed in spring, 2020, following the death of George Floyd.

Promoting racial justice in law enforcement is one of the group’s priorities, and at the Selectboard meeting, RRE argued for a town ordinance prohibiting local police from cooperating with federal agencies on issues of immigration status. Supporting them, and adding personal testimonials about challenges faced by immigrants in Vermont, were members of Burlington-based advocacy organization Migrant Justice.

“We've had to live with the fear of being arrested, that we could be separated from our families, fear to go out to the store,” said dairy worker and Migrant Justice leader Rossy Alfaro. She described how some migrant workers are leery of approaching the police for help, “because of that same fear that they could then call immigration.”

The ordinance that RRE and Migrant Justice support would close a loophole in Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, the groups said. Current policies mandate that law enforcement officers do not single out individuals based on suspected immigration status, but some communities across the state, including Winooski, have chosen to implement more stringent limits on police.

It’s has been the subject of ongoing talks between RRE, Arneson, a Selectboard representative, and Acting Police Chief Kyle Kapitanski. “We were not getting anywhere in terms of coming to consensus so we decided to bring it back to the Selectboard,” wrote RRE founding member Ann Naumann via email. But at the meeting, a different point of contention emerged: Who controls Richmond Police Department policy?

The police do, the Selectboard asserted at the meeting. “[Our lawyer’s] finding is that it is the police chief and not the Selectboard who would adopt the policy,” Arneson said. That contradicts a position held by RRE and the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, whose chair, Kira Kelley, also attended the meeting.

“I'm a little bit baffled, to be quite honest, at the thought that the police department could have unfettered discretion… on policies,” Kelley said, countering that the Selectboard itself holds that power.

The tension reflects broader struggles—both in Vermont and nationwide—over who controls policing. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger recently vetoed a Burlington City Council proposal to create a community control board overseeing the police department, for example, arguing that it would compromise public safety.

For now, the Selectboard plans to draft a resolution for adoption by its January 19 meeting, in support of the enhanced policy on Fair and Impartial Policing Policy. Acting Chief of Police Kyle Kapitanski said he was prepared to sign the resolution when it is presented to him.

Representatives of Richmond Racial Equity expressed concern that a resolution, rather than an ordinance, would leave Richmond’s future police leadership the leeway to set their own policies. But Selectboard member Katie Mather assured the group that a tighter version of Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy would indeed be implemented.

“We support the updated FIPP,” Mather said.

“We don’t have to worry about whose lawyer says what. We found a way to move forward.”