Calls to defund Burlington Police gain traction

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Calls in Burlington to defund the police are gaining traction. Hundreds of people showed up online to a city Board of Finance Commission meeting to ask that the city's budget not pass unless police funding is reduced.

In the Queen City, demands for change stemming from the national outrage over George Floyd's death have led to calls to restructure policing to address systemic racism.

"It's not moving fast enough. Burlington has tried and it's not enough," said Stephanie Gomory with the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance. She says their demands to Burlington leaders are just the tip of the iceberg.

Among those:

• A 30% reduction in uniformed officers.
• Removing police officers from schools.
• Firing three officers who have been accused of police brutality.
• Reinvesting money not going into police into communities of color.

Gomory says they don't want the city budget to pass until those demands are met. "This is just something we need to do immediately -- it's not at all the end," she said.

But the Burlington Police Officers' Association says defunding them without a clear path forward would put citizens at risk. In a statement on Twitter, the union acknowledged the need for solutions to issues of mental health and substance use disorders, but said "The solution includes police, no matter how much some members of the Burlington City Council think it doesn't."

"We need professionals. And those professionals need to respond to the specific issues they come from," said City Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7. He supports some of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance's ideas, but not all of them. He thinks the city should strive for more social workers and fewer police, but he wants to see officers stay in schools. He says voters should demand accountability from city leaders.

"Let's make that accountability first and then we will work hard in making sure that our culture has changed and everybody feels safe and welcome and appreciated," Dieng said.

An important distinction to note -- defunding police is not the same as disbanding them. That idea has gotten traction in places like Minneapolis, but it has yet to gain real momentum in Vermont.