Burlington decides to reduce police force over time. What does this mean for public safety?

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A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling its police department after the death of George Floyd. USA TODAY

The Burlington Police Department budget passed by city councilors will change little in the agency’s day-to-day operations — especially if the number of officers remains the same as it is now, according to Acting Chief Jon Murad. 

However, a mandate passed by the Council prohibiting the police department from filling positions until the number of officers falls below 74 has Murad, other officers, and Mayor Miro Weinberger worried. At that point, operations could look very different, Murad said. 

“That is a number that does not allow us to provide the services that our neighbors expect,” Murad said in a recent interview. “It is a number that will negatively impact public safety.”

The mandate was made through a resolution passed by the City Council that focused on racial justice. The money achieved through eliminating officer positions is intended to be diverted to social services and other public safety alternatives as well as social, economic and racial justice initiatives, the resolution states.

More: Burlington City Council endorses reducing police force through attrition

Burlington’s police department currently has 91 officers — 90 of whom are active. There is no timeline for eliminating positions as the Council resolved that the number 74 should be reached through officer attrition (such as retirements and officers leaving by choice). The pace of attrition is unpredictable, which means the department will have to adjust operations as necessary as the number of officers gets lower, Murad said.

City councilors and the mayor are hoping to move quickly to remove certain responsibilities from the police department’s shoulders and to divert those responsibilities to social services. 

What is different now? 

The plan Weinberger and the City Council Board of Finance initially presented would have cut about 12% from budget writers’ starting point — the fiscal year 2020 budget plus a 3% cost of living adjustment — according to Olivia LaVecchia, a spokeswoman for Weinberger’s office. 

Murad said this budget would have essentially allowed the department to continue operating the way it has been operating. However, the budget did not allow the department to grow. 

“We knew that this was necessary owing to COVID-19 and the revenue diminishment,” Murad said. However, he added, “That’s not an insignificant thing.”

Several Progressive city councilors attempted to cut from additional line-items during a public meeting on June 30, but only succeeded in docking an additional $9,000 from the budget. This line item had been budgeted for promotional and community policing initiatives such as handing out Burlington Police Department stickers to kids, “Creemee with a Cop” events, clergy luncheons and other community outreach, Murad said.

What could change with fewer officers?

It’s unclear, at this point, what Burlington Police Department’s service to the community would look like if the number of officers were to reduce to 74, Murad said. 

The Burlington Police Officer Association’s union contract states that when the number of officers reaches 80, “emergency staffing” protocols may be triggered. This situation is not mandatory, but would involve bargaining with union leaders, Murad said.

According to a memo written by Murad and submitted to the City Council, out of 74 officers: 

  • Eight would remain assigned to the Burlington International Airport per Transportation Security Administration and Federal Aviation Administration regulations. 
  • 15 are currently supervisors. It is unclear whether there would be restructuring, Murad said.
  • 10 officers would be assigned to the detective services bureau, per the union contract. 
  • 41 officers would be available for patrol.

With this breakdown, Murad wrote, there would be 22% fewer officers available for patrol. According to the memo, 22% of the department’s current call volume is 6,270 calls.

“For which of these 6,270 calls do our neighbors not want or need police response?” Murad wrote. “The BPD knows there are some calls that could be diverted away from police response, but doing so should be intentional, deliberate, and based on data, not based on arbitrarily diminished staffing.”

Some other things that would have to be considered, according to Murad, are:

  • Whether the police department can have specialized positions as it does now, including a domestic violence prevention officer, a community affairs officer, and officers assigned to the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. These officers may have to return to patrol to fill gaps in service. 
  • To what extent the police department can engage in proactive community policing strategies. 
  • Whether the department will have to prioritize certain types of calls — for example, the department always prioritizes calls that involve threats to people’s safety, but there could be diminished ability to respond to quality-of-life calls such as vandalism or noise complaints.
  • Whether the police department will be able to provide 24/7 service, or if they will need to be on call during some overnight hours.

What’s next? 

Mayor Weinberger said he wanted to quickly begin looking at the types of calls that could be made the responsibility of social service providers. He has expressed concern multiple times about the number of officers being reduced to 74 through attrition.  

“Certainly, I think it would be a real mistake if we got to the point where we were actually having to pull back from responsibilities that the community expects us to do and these other capacities weren’t there yet,” Weinberger said during a briefing on July 8.

Ward 1 Progressive City Councilor Zoraya Hightower — one of the leaders of the bid to reduce the police force to 74 — also said she hoped to begin finding ways to reduce the police department’s call volume.

“Otherwise, I think we’re going to start to come up against some difficult decisions very quickly,” Hightower said during a Public Safety Committee meeting on July 7. 

The budget passed also includes a $250,000 fund for public safety transformation, which would include a full operational assessment of the Burlington Police Department by someone outside the agency. The assessment has not yet been scheduled. 

Murad said that despite his concerns, he is eager to participate in the process of transforming the police department, seeing what can be removed from the department’s plate, and bolstering social services. He said ideas for reform should be driven by data, research and experience.

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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