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Burlington officials say police defunding experiment will take time to yield results

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 3:55 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Public safety in Burlington has been in the spotlight for months following a City Council decision last year to reduce the number of officers at the Burlington Police Department. While the issue has gained urgency as the economy opens back up, officials say it will take time to see if the experiment yields results.

It’s been nearly a year since the Burlington City council voted in favor of historic police cuts that reduced the officer headcount by 30% in response to racial justice protests and excessive force allegations.

“The reason we made that decision is because we have continued to see persistent disparities in how the public safety system is for people of color in our community,” said City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, who led the call for changes at BPD.

“We can’t continue to do the same things and expect different results when it comes to racial justice as it applies to public safety.”

In early June, Burlington saw its sixth shooting of 2021. Businesses raised safety concerns of employees and customers, as well as the reputation of Burlington being a safe space. BPD officials say one example of the impact of the cuts is fewer patrols outside the bars at closing time. But it’s an argument Tracy doesn’t buy. “I think they are using every claim that they possibly can to try to build their argument or their case,” he said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says concerns with late-night public safety coverage are legitimate. “I’m being straight with people, I definitely have some uncertainty and concern about the period that we are in. We are going to have to manage through it together,” he said.

In response to staffing levels, BPD has a priority response plan designed to better manage during times when call volumes are high and officers on duty are low. But other changes are coming. Unarmed “community service officers” are expected to be added who will respond to lower-level calls like noise complaints. The city’s new budget also includes $400,000 for mental health councilors to assist in some calls.

“I think this is a tough period that we are entering into right now when we really have constrained resources. This isn’t where we are going to be permanently,” Weinberger said.

Tracy and other Progressives believe Burlington could be a nationwide leader under the new plan. “We have an opportunity here to dramatically transform public safety and take a leadership role among small cities in the United States,” he said.

The Democratic mayor agrees but says it’s not going to happen overnight and it will take some time to get those resources in place. “We don’t have them this summer and I do have some concern about it,” Weinberger said.

Both Tracy and the mayor said separately that they feel the city is safe and that it should take about a year to have a better idea of what the changes look like.

Meanwhile, an independent assessment of the police department is expected to be released in the fall, as is the final job posting for a new police chief. The mayor says the city is still working to get feedback from the community on what they want that job to look like. Tracy and the mayor also agree finding a new chief will be part of bringing the city together.

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