Burlington ‘community support liaisons’ prepare to hit the streets

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 6:10 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Help is on the way for Burlington Police. The Queen city’s new community support liaison position starts soon, in an effort to supplement the department following budget cuts last year.

After the Burlington City Council voted to defund the police department by 30% last summer, in February they authorized the hiring of community support liaisons (CSLs) , and community service officers (CSOs), to help augment the police department’s services. CSOs will be unarmed officers that respond to non-emergency calls for service. They will work in more of a community policing space, dealing with neighborly disputes, and will have the ability to write tickets, but will not have arrest powers or carry weapons. CSLs will all be trained social workers who have experience dealing with a variety of mental health and substance abuse issues that cops often encounter.

“Having this CSL position really helps the officers. They know when I talk to the CSL and they are going to work with this person, they can feel confident that this person is going to get the help that they need,” said Burlington Police Deputy Chief Wade Labrecque.

CSLs will answer to the community affairs liaison within the department, but they do not carry a gun or wear a badge. They will help people access housing, mental health services, addiction services, or even getting documents to open bank accounts.

Eventually, there will be three CSLs. The department is currently onboarding the first one, who will focus on opioid and substance abuse issues.

Labrecque says he hopes the CSLs will free up time so officers can focus on crime. “They would actually get the call instead of sending a police officer, which is one of the things the community has told us that they wanted -- is not having armed officers showing up to these types of calls. So, having a CSL and the ability to send them during the daytime hours is one of the things we’ve been able to provide for the community,” he said.

City Council President Max Tracy pushed for a transformation of the police department and says he hopes having these liaisons could cut down on drug-related incidents in the city. “Provide opportunities for folks who are struggling with substance use disorders to receive the assistance that they need and be better connected to services so that we impact that demand side of the equation for narcotics,” he said.

The Howard Center has worked for years to address these issues, even offering to work with the city to set up similar programs.

Offers that the center’s Catherine Simonson says were declined. She says they are excited to now partner up to help those in the community. “Our vision between Howard Center and the city is to work closely together to address some of the concerns we all have in terms of supporting people who are struggling and are not getting connected with the services that are there,” she said.

The first CSL should be on the job later this month. Two more are in the pipeline.

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