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Burlington City Council rejects increasing police staffing

Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 1:29 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 9, 2021 at 5:55 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington City Council has approved an amended version of Mayor Miro Weinberger’s plan to address the shrinking police force.

The council voted 11-1 early Tuesday morning to approve Weinberger’s Public Safety Continuity Plan, which he introduced last month as a solution to police officials’ concerns that they won’t be able to provide 24-hour police service if the number of officers keeps dropping. Weinberger’s proposal calls for the city to add four community service officers and a community service liaison position that would provide support for people who have come into contact with police and are suffering from opioid use disorder.

The plan also sought to raise the cap on sworn officers from 74 to 84, but the council shot that down with a 7-5 vote in favor of an amendment proposed by Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, to leave the number at 74. She also rejected Weinberger’s statement that the city is on the brink of a public safety crisis.

“I do not personally believe that we have to raise the officer cap to 74. I also don’t think we’re in a crisis,” Hightower said. “We had 91 officers before and now we have 81. This resolution originally said the target should be 78. I still believe that the target should be 74. And if it should be between 78 and 74, I don’t understand why we’re at a crisis at 71.”

Weinberger criticized Hightower and other councilors for refusing to acknowledge the urgency of the situation.

“I am shocked by the cavalier nature in which councilors can say that this is a manufactured problem. Within the logic of the council’s own thinking, there are remedies that get us to a number that police department leaders say is manageable. This is the vote that will be remembered by Burlingtonians for a long time,” Weinberger said. “No one can assert that the results of this vote are unclear. A ‘yes’ vote for this amendment is a vote to go over the edge into that crisis, to accept it and to welcome it. I urge, in the strongest possible terms, for the council to vote ‘no’ on this amendment and to vote ‘yes’ on the Public Safety Continuity Plan as proposed.”

One thing Weinberger and Hightower’s proposals did agree on was the need for the city to hire unarmed community support liaisons to provide support for people suffering from a mental health crisis or substance abuse disorder. But they differed on how many of those positions to create and who would pay for it.

Weinberger wants two positions created. He proposed that the city spend $150,000 of the city’s general fund to make a new reserve fund out of the Police Transformation Fund to create these roles immediately. A process would begin that would generate two more of these positions.

On the other hand, Hightower wants up to seven of these jobs. She requested that $450,000 be taken from the Burlington Police Department budget, not the city’s general fund.

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