Lineup sign outside the Flynn

Flynn and YMCA Claim Neutrality in Policing Conversations, but Panelists are a Political Choice

UPDATE Feb 23 9:23am: The Flynn event has been postponed. From a Flynn email: “Due to weather conditions, Collaborating Public Safety on February 23 is postponed. A new date for this event will be announced soon.”

UPDATE March 1 1:10pm: The event is now scheduled for Sunday, March 12 at 6pm at the Flynn.

As Town Meeting Day approaches, more public figures and organizations are intervening in the public debate over one item in particular on Burlington’s ballot: the community control of police charter change. While a myriad of grassroots community groups and the Progressive Party support the ballot item, Mayor Weinberger, Democrats on Burlington City Council, and police officials are firmly opposed.

This Thursday, the Flynn Center is organizing and hosting a panel discussion on policing featuring a police union representative from Illinois, an assistant director at the U.S. Department of Justice who provides grant funding to police departments, and a Yale Law School professor. What unites these three speakers is their participation in President Obama’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” formed in 2014 in response to the widespread, popular rebellion in the wake of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Flynn event listing describes the task force’s report as “a blueprint for agencies across the country.”

While neither the Flynn nor the panelists have yet publicly taken a position on the ballot measure, the Obama task force’s report pointedly excludes what the charter change is proposing to enact (p.26).

In an email to The Rake, Jay Wahl, the Flynn’s executive director, wrote, “We believe [it] is always vital for us to provide opportunities for dialogue around critical community issues in the name of information sharing and being a key public forum for Vermonters.” Wahl anticipates the panelists “will speak to their research and expertise on how communities can collaborate with law enforcement around questions of public safety.”

Greater Burlington YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson, who is no stranger to controversies around policing, supports the event. In an email to members, Dodson encouraged attendance to the Flynn event, and offered an invitation to a special free pre-event discussion to be hosted at the YMCA. Neither Dodson nor the YMCA is a sponsor or organizer for the Flynn event.

In an interview with The Rake, Dodson distanced himself personally from the event, stating that the pre-event “is the Y’s event, not Kyle’s event. I’m not giving a speech, I’m not giving a position paper, I will be there having a slice of pizza and talking to my neighbors and community people.”

Dear Y Community, I would like to extend an invitation for you to join me at a free event hosted by the Flynn on Thursday, February 23rd, Collaborating on Public Safety “features an in-depth discussion about urgent public safety issues and the role of policing.” The Flynn has brought in speakers deeply connected with the national discussions who will, “illustrate key recommendations and ways in which communities across the country can continue to engage organizations, municipalities, and citizens in the co- production of public safety.” More information on this event can be found here. As part of this community event, I'd like to welcome you to the Y beforehand for an informal gathering to provide some time and space for discussion and connection, starting at 5:30 pm. Details are below: Collaborating on Public Safety « 5:30 pm: pre-event gathering at the Y « Pizza and refreshments will be served. « We can walk as a group to the Flynn for the 7 pm event. « For planning purposes, we'd appreciate an RSVP linked here. « 7:00 pm: event at the Flynn + The event is free but please be sure to click here to register. 1 look forward to sharing some time and conversation with you on this important community topic. - Kyle Dodson, President and CEQ

This is the first time since 2021 that Dodson has entered the political fray around policing and police oversight. After the Battery Park occupation and protests in 2020, Mayor Weinberger picked Dodson to lead a committee on Police Transformation and take a leave as CEO of the YMCA. After six months in that position, for which he was paid $75,000, Seven Days uncovered that “significant portions” of Dodson’s 8-page, 1,500-word final report had been plagiarized. More than half of the words were not his own. 

In the Seven Days article, Dodson defended the content of the report, saying the plagiarism “was probably just, at the end of the day, [an] oversight.” He also defended the report’s brevity, claiming that, given the city’s climate, people weren’t ready to talk about police transformation and that a longer document would not be productive. “The community didn’t want transformation,” he said. “Blacks and activists want revenge. That’s understandable, but it’s deeply problematic.” 

Dodson told The Rake that his past role as Director of Police Transformation “isn’t the reason the Y is sponsoring [the pre-event]. We’re sponsoring this because we care about community, we got a pretty good track record, and this is an important issue.” Dodson said his first priority is educating the public on the issue. “If we actually could inform people and get the real issues on the table, I think we could reach some kind of common ground and consensus. I think the level of misinformation is staggering, staggering.” 

Local activists, who recently began a reinvigorated campaign around moving police funds to social services and stopping new prison construction in the state, have not been invited to speak at Thursday’s Flynn event or the Y pre-event. Some local Black activists will be featured at the Black Experience event on Saturday, February 25 as part of Black History Month. 

While Dodson says he is presently focused on informing the public, in his 2020 statement calling racism a public health emergency he took a somewhat different tone, writing that “talk is cheap.” Since those words were written, roughly 2,500 people have been shot and killed by police nationwide.

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Bills and Matt Moore.

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