With fewer officers on patrol, how safe is Burlington?

Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 6:42 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Public safety and policing are, yet again, one of the defining issues of Town Meeting Day in Burlington. While there are no direct questions about police on the ballot, the eight seats up for grabs on the City Council could chart the course for new public safety policy in the city.

Our Dom Amato investigates whether Burlington is actually less safe as the number of officers on patrol has dropped to its lowest point in decades.

Right now, 65 officers are on the Burlington Police payroll. Three are out on military leave, three are on medical leave and one is set to graduate from the police academy Friday. That leaves only 58 effective officers, a historic low at the department.

Burlington Police Sgt. Michael Henry says it’s tough working with a depleted crew and rank-and-file officers are bearing the brunt of the staffing shortage.

“It’s tough,” Henry said. “I just try to be there for the people I am supervising and make sure they are good.”

Following the City Council’s decision in 2020 to cut the force by 30%, there was an exodus of officers, dropping the ranks even below the council’s target number, and hiring hasn’t been able to keep up with the departures.

It will likely take years to rebuild the force to its new cap of 79 officers, and the Burlington Police Officers’ Association says the men and women here are already stretched thin.

“We don’t really see anything positive at this point in time,” said Joseph Corrow, the president of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association.

Corrow says morale remains low and overtime shifts are wearing officers down.

And officials say experienced officers aren’t chomping at the bit to make a lateral move to the Queen City.

“All you have to do is a Google search of the Burlington Police Department and you can see the news for the past two years. And if I saw that and I was applying here, I would take my application back immediately,” Corrow said.

He believes clear support from the city would help boost morale but says it’s something they’re not feeling from Burlington decision-makers.

BPOA leaders are looking toward Town Meeting Day, where there could be a political shake-up of City Council seats.

“We hope to see that whoever is in office after Town Meeting Day will support us and work us, so we can move forward. Because currently it feels like we’re at a stalemate and no one wants to collaborate,” Corrow said.

“I am willing to have these conversations if the administration is willing to show up in good faith,” said Joe Magee, P-Burlington City Council.

Magee says the council did show a sign of support to the department after it signed off on $800,000 in recruitment and retention incentives.

But he and other Progressives on the council want to see more action on addressing racial disparities, community oversight and transformative police practices laid out in a consultant’s assessment of the Burlington Police Department.

“If we invest in those alternatives, we will reduce the stress on the police department,” Magee said.

Independent City Councilor Ali Dieng says city leaders need to show support of officers, as they do with any city department, but he believes politics play a big factor.

“I feel whole-heartedly that even the Progressives support the police. But when it comes to politics, things are complicated, things are messy,” Dieng said.

Changes will also come as the weather warms and calls increase.

According to the data, incidents-- which aren’t always crimes-- are down significantly from 2016. Priority 1 incidents-- assaults, domestic calls and robberies-- did increase last year after a downward trend.

Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad says safety isn’t always dictated by the data.

“I don’t think the city is unsafe in an actual way, but I do think there is a sense from many members of the public that the safety is different than it used to be. And it’s not different in a good way,” Murad said.

Murad says with more officers expected to leave or retire in the coming months, he’ll again need to revise the way the department prioritizes calls. And that means some residents will have to wait longer for help.

Henry says police have been able to handle to workload in the slower season, but he says that could change soon.

“Right now, we’ve been lucky,” he said. “But our luck is going to run out eventually.”

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