How would cutting Burlington police change the city?

Published: Jun. 17, 2020 at 6:05 PM EDT
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What would policing look like in Burlington if the force was cut by 30%? Our Dom Amato is taking a closer look at a proposal made to the city by racial justice advocates and what it would mean for the people who live there.

"It would be a huge loss to our agency," Burlington Deputy Police Chief Matthew Sullivan said.

The Burlington Police Department faces a 10% decrease in next year's budget under a plan put forward this week by Mayor Miro Weinberger.

According to Sullivan, that cut is doable but he says it's the maximum the department could handle before some services would have to be cut. Reducing the force by a full 30%-- cutting 18 officers in addition to the 12 vacancies the mayor wants to leave open-- is not something they are comfortable with.

"We would really would just have to respond to calls of service that involve public safety," Sullivan said.

He says nearly all of their calls include some aspect of social work. The Vermont Racial Equity Alliance, which is pushing the deeper cuts, says leave the social work to social workers.

"What we've seen time and time again in Burlington and Vermont and the country is that police are not best to facilitate that safety of themselves or the person in crisis," said Skyler Nash of the Vermont Racial Equity Alliance.

But police say they are responding to mental health crises to provide safety and support for social workers. They believe eliminating positions at the department without more plans in place is dangerous.

"You haven't built up the social services yet to be able to support it, and those social services whenever there is a public safety issue, they rely on us to provide them with the safety so that they can interact with that individual," Sullivan said.

Reform advocates argue investing upfront in social services could reduce demands on police. And they fewer cops on the streets could help break down the culture of punishment that disproportionately impacts people of color. The Racial Equity Alliance pushes back against a go-slow approach.

"I think it needed to happen long before this, so saying that, 'Oh, we need to do this slowly,' no, we need to do this immediately. We've needed to do this immediately," Nash said.

The advocacy group has called for the 30% reduction in officers, as well as to invest capital into people of color-owned businesses and to track key racial equity data. They say the mayor's budget is a start but doesn't hit the mark.

The mayor urges caution in moving too quickly.

"I'm advocating for urgent action but getting it right, and I think we need a little more time and focus to do that," said Weinberger, D-Burlington.

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