Burlington City Council to Take up Church Street Trespass Ordinance Tonight | Off Message

Burlington City Council to Take up Church Street Trespass Ordinance Tonight

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If you’re drunk and belligerent on Church Street, it could be a while before you're allowed to return.

That's the goal of a proposed ordinance, which comes up for a vote tonight by the Burlington City Council. If approved, the new rule, sponsored by city councilors Vince Dober (R-Ward 7), Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) and Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), would give police the authority to issue no-trespass warnings and citations for "anti-social behavior...[that] enhances a sense of fear, intimidation, and disorder within the Church Street Marketplace District."

Under current law, police can issue a no-trespass order on Church Street only if the offensive or illegal behavior occurs indoors or on private property, such as a restaurant, bar, store or in the mall.

Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling describes the ordinance, which has been talked about downtown for years, as a creative tool for preventing "repetitive and poor behavior." In most cases, it wouldn't require police to arrest offenders, then dump them into the court system. Instead, he says, the new rule would act as a deterrent to those who want to be downtown. Police would have the discretion to issue a no-trespass order for as little as one day, or for as much as one year.

The new ordinance is modeled on those already in place in City Hall Park and Fletcher Free Library. Schirling notes that in City Hall Park, where the ordinance took effect just 18 months ago, police have already seen a "notable decrease" in their call volumes.

"What we found is what we had hoped," Schirling says. "In City Hall Park there have been very few arrests or the need for very few trespass warnings issued. The very fact that [the ordinance] exists is enough to change behavior."

What kinds of behaviors are enough to get someone barred from Church Street and surrounding streets? Open containers of alcohol, loud and aggressive yelling, fighting, unlawful mischief or vandalism are just some of the activities that qualify. That said, Schirling emphasizes that just being drunk and stumbling out of a bar won't, in itself, get you popped.

"It's behavior based," he says. "People won't be trespassed willy-nilly."

Since accused offenders don't go before a judge, the new measure includes a provision to create a three-member panel to hear appeals from the accused. The panel would be comprised of representatives from the business community, social services community and the general public.

Though the measure is more likely to affect those who are homeless and/or suffer from mental impairments, members of Burlington's social service community are supportive.

In a letter from Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington, he calls the new rule "a balanced approach" that "allows the person who has been accused of violating it to participate in the restorative justice process."

Likewise, Robert Bick, interim executive director of the HowardCenter, notes in his letter of support that thus far, the no-trespass ordinances already in place at Fletcher Free Library and City Hall Park have been used "judiciously" by Burlington Police "and the outcomes have been positive."

Bick also commends the proposed ordinance because it "decriminalizes" certain behavior while still providing for "swift and sure" consequences for those who act in antisocial ways, without placing additional burdens on the criminal justice system.

The proposed ordinance comes up for a vote Monday night at 7 PM.

Seven Days file photo.

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