How Burlington hopes community support liaisons will help transform policing

Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 6:07 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington is working to transform policing and trying a new way to respond to incidents fueled by drugs and mental illness. The city is investing in unarmed community support liaisons or CSLs.

CSLs work in the police department but they are not cops. They are trained social workers who help respond to the needs of community members who are struggling the most.

“I see a lot of positive things, a lot of people walking around addressing the people who are laying in the streets and stuff like that. I see a lot of that happening,” said Darryl Galloway of Burlington.

Galloway has seen people helping around the community. Currently, the Burlington Police Department has three CSLs with plans to hire three more to help keep up with their extremely busy workloads.

“There’s just not enough support in general to have more people that can help in general with anything that’s really key,” said Anna Wageling, a CSL who has been on the job since October.

Wageling says her daily work varies dramatically, but it’s focused on connecting people with important services whether it be housing, substance help or just making a personal connection when they are ready for help in the future.

CSLs respond to dispatch calls for when social work services are more needed than law enforcement.

“Instead of saying, ‘You have to leave right now,’ and not giving someone the option of how I can be helpful, instead, it’s what can I do to help you? Can I do something to help you? Do you just want someone to listen?” Wageling explained.

They also follow up with people in hopes of forming relationships and make sure people are not falling through the cracks. Anything that doesn’t involve public safety or involve an ordinance being violated, CSLs will typically handle on their own.

CSLs can also accompany uniformed officers and paramedics to calls of overdoses, says Program Supervisor Lacey Smith, who has been a social worker in the department for eight years.

“In terms of engagement, having an event like that happen can really change the trajectory of someone’s life, and in the beginning making sure folks know that there is assistance from this moment forward if that’s what you want,” Smith said.

The CSLs also work very closely with the Howard Center street outreach team each day, and will often point people experiencing mental health issues to the Howard Center for help.

Burlington’s City Hall Park at times can be a hotbed for bad behavior from people who are struggling, something that’s noticed by citizens and visitors alike.

“I hope as time progresses that we can deliver what these people need to the best of our ability,” said Jarret Pidgeon of Burlington.

Unfortunately, Smith believes right now there’s a logjam of people trying to get services. At the same time, she says the system of services, like housing and mental health help, is stretched very thin due to a number of impacts, such as the pandemic.

“It’s really because those systems are at capacity that we are seeing more people outside, that we are seeing an uptick in just of all the quality-of-life issues that the community sees,” Smith said.

In Burlington, some are excited about these social worker positions being expanded, but say public safety continues to be very worrisome with an understaffed police department.

“I think that’s a necessary step but I think it’s really important to restore the police force, the sworn officers to the level they were at before they were defunded,” said Walter Judge of Burlington.

The recent city budget will increase the number of CSLs from three to six. As the department tries to rebuild, these CSLs, along with community service officers or CSOs-- which are unarmed unsworn officers-- handle ordinance issues and street patrols. And along with the new urban park rangers, they are three of the tools the city is using to further diversify public safety in the city.

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