What will fewer police officers mean for Burlington?

Published: Jul. 20, 2020 at 6:49 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 20, 2020 at 8:39 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Calls to defund the police rang loud and clear throughout the country just a few weeks ago. The campaign was successful in Burlington, as city councilors made historic cuts to the city police department. Just a few weeks after that decision, the true impact of those cuts to your safety remain unclear. Our Dom Amato reports.

There's a vision for what public safety looks like in the Queen City in the future, but how long it takes to get there and who needs what money is what city leaders are trying to figure out.

Burlington Police are trying to plan for the unknown. The department must reduce its staff by 30% through attrition by 2022, leaving 74 officers.

"We have turnover. We have an attrition rate that's pretty high," Burlington Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said.

Murad says there are 90 active officers now but due to retirement, relocation and what some may perceive as low community support, he believes that number likely won't stay that high for long.

"We are going to start getting closer to that 74 number than I feel comfortable with, quicker than I think we want," Murad said.

But what happens next? Once officers start leaving, operations must be adjusted quickly to maintain service to the city. That has police examining their call data.

Some calls to police-- like quality of life crimes-- are trending down but other calls-- like disorder on Church Street-- are going up. The least frequent but most serious calls for assaults and domestic violence are staying steady.

"My concern is that we are going to be dialing back our capacity to respond without having those alternative capacities to respond in place and that will be to the detriment to our neighbors," Murad said.

The department and the city are in the very early phases of planning what services will be absorbed by other agencies as the officer count drops.

"That development is going to take time. It's going to take much longer than I think people appreciate. I also think that there's going to be real cost associated with it," Murad said.

Joan Shannon, a Democrat on the Burlington City Council, shares the concerns of the department that the infrastructure is not in place to fill the gaps of the reduced officers.

"I think we have a real lack of services in the community and that is in part why the police are so often called. And we have to look more systemcially at this problem. So, I don't disagree with the vision," Shannon said.

Progressive Councilor Jack Hanson says reducing the force is a good first step to reforming the public safety system. He says using money reallocated from the department will help to build up other services over time.

"Is everything in place that we're going to transition to? No. I would say we have some of the pieces in place, that I mentioned, but we need to build these systems up," Hanson said.

I also reached out to the Howard Center, which does a majority of the work with people experiencing a mental health crisis in the city, about what their role will be. They said they would talk to me as soon as they have more clarity moving forward.

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