Burlington’s City Council voted in favor of an resolution that would reduce the city’s police force by 30% through attrition.
The resolution, which additionally calls for the city to declare racism a public health crisis, passed 9-3 on Monday night following several hours of public comment and deliberation between the city councilors. Councilors Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, Joan Shannon, D-South District, and Chip Mason, D-Ward 5, voted no.
Councilors postponed voting on a budget for fiscal year 2021 until Tuesday evening. A budget proposed by Mayor Miro Weinberger would cut the police department’s budget by more than 10%.
The Mayor’s budget also includes a $1 million fund for racial justice expenditures and a $250,000 fund for public safety transformation.
Burlington’s Board of Finance, which includes Weinberger and four councilors, recommended Weinberger’s proposed budget to the City Council for consideration Monday evening.
Debate over the Burlington Police Department’s budget has intensified since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, a Black man, died after a white police officer knelt on the back of his neck while he was face-down on the ground. Floyd’s death and the deaths of other Black and brown Americans sparked calls nationally for police reform and defunding.
What’s in the Burlington resolution?
Progressive city councilors put forth the Racial Justice Resolution that passed Monday night, including a 30% reduction in police officers through attrition and other reforms.
The councilors who co-sponsored the resolution are Ward 1 Councilor Zoraya Hightower, Ward 2 Councilor Max Tracy, Ward 3 Councilor Brian Pine, Ward 8 Councilor Jane Stromberg, Central District Councilor Perri Freeman, and East District Councilor Jack Hanson.
In addition to staffing cuts that lower the number of officers from 105 to 74, the resolution:
- Declares racism a citywide health crisis.
- Reallocates money freed up from reducing the number of police officer to a number of public safety alternatives and social, economic and racial justice initiatives.
- Asks the city to terminate the contract between the Burlington School District and Burlington Police Department by spring semester 2021. The contract provides two school resource officers from the police department.
- Calls for a joint contingent of the City Council Public Safety Committee and Police Commission to begin an inquiry into how to build a healthy and safe community and what institutions are needed to reach that goal, in addition to a full operational and functional assessment of the Burlington Police Department.
- Requires that city staff undergo training twice per year that explores the roots and impacts of systemic oppression and racism as well as solutions to systemic oppression and racism.
- Establishes a task force to consider an apology or reparations for the role Burlington played in chattel slavery.
- Gives the Burlington Police Commission access to all complaints about police officers, allows commissioners to ask for additional data collection, and gives them the power to approve disciplinary decisions of officers.
Many have weighed in on the types of racial justice and policing reforms Burlington needs. Here are what some of the main stakeholders have put forth:
Vermont Racial Justice Alliance
The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance — an organization that focuses on dismantling systemic racism and creating direct impacts across a broad spectrum of issues — has advocated for reallocating funds away from police and toward public safety alternatives. Weinberger said he worked with the group before putting forth his final budget proposal.
The alliance expressed support for the Racial Justice Resolution that was introduced by Progressive city councilors and passed Monday. The group said that the resolution, combined with Weinberger’s proposed budget, represents “a significant step in the right direction” in addressing a list of demands the group has made.
The alliance has been advocating its own plan for transforming the lives of Black and brown people living in Vermont called Operation Phoenix R.I.S.E. The initiative’s acronym stands for:
- Restructuring public safety.
- Implementing cultural empowerment.
- Securing equal opportunity.
- Expanding racial equity, inclusion and belonging.
The group has made a series of demands to Burlington city councilors, including:
- Calling upon the mayor and or the City Council to declare racism a citywide health crisis.
- Calling upon the City Council to establish a task force to consider an apology and a proposal for reparations for the role that Burlington has played in chattel slavery.
- Calling on Burlington to “make a moral statement by prioritizing the eradication of systemic racism in the creation of the budget.”
- Calling on the City of Burlington to Join the Racial Justice Alliance in the implementation of Operation Phoenix R.I.S.E.
The group has asked that each of their demands is met before a budget passes.
Mayor Miro Weinberger
Weinberger’s budget reduces the police department’s allocation by over 10% by making $1.3 million in cuts and $800,000 in fund reallocation.
Weinberger said during a news conference Monday afternoon that he did not support the officer reduction proposal in the Racial Justice Resolution right now, but added that he was open to further discussion. He recommended hiring an external person or group to conduct an operational review of the Burlington Police Department. This would be paid for through the $250,000 police transformation fund in his budget proposal, he said.
Weinberger said he was concerned, at this point, about falling below 85 officers. In accordance with the Burlington Police Officers Association contract with the city, reaching a staffing level of 80 officers would trigger the “emergency staffing” threshold, which would affect:
- Community-based policing and other proactive practices.
- Response time in general and the responses to non-life-threatening calls.
- The existence of specialized officers such as the domestic violence prevention officer, school resource officers, the community affairs officer, and the emergency response officer. These positions would all be recalled to patrol.
Burlington Police Officers Association
The police officers’ union urged the City Council to avoid reducing the police department’s budget beyond Weinberger’s proposed cuts. In a statement Monday, the police union said it supported police reform, but said councilors must consider police input.
The union said the demand on the police department must be reduced before the number of police officers can be reduced.
“The Burlington Police Department is already understaffed,” the union stated. “Reducing the number of rank and file officers on the street without first reducing the demand for police services will needlessly risk the lives of the most vulnerable in our community and of the police officers whose job it is to protect them.”
The union added, “Black people should not be judged based on the color of their skin. Burlington Police Officers should be judged based on their own actions, not based on the fact some other officers have acted outrageously. The men and women of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association are dedicated public servants, not renegade racists.”
Burlington Firefighters Association
The Burlington firefighters’ union president wrote a letter to the City Council stating that reducing police department staff could affect how firefighters do their job. Firefighters and police officers often respond to scenes together if there is an ongoing danger to public safety but emergency medical services are needed.
Blake urged the City Council to ensure that any reductions would not have repercussions across the city’s public safety infrastructure.
“Often, some of our most difficult and traumatic calls involve situations that would put our members in danger if a police officer was not on scene,” wrote union President Kyle Blake.
He added, “We pride ourselves on how quickly we are able to get on scene and provide patient care, and we worry that patients, who are in critical need of medical attention, may experience delayed care and poor outcomes if we cannot have the scene quickly made safe by the police.”
Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.
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