After Public Urging, Weinberger Proposes Police Budget Cuts | Off Message

After Public Urging, Weinberger Proposes Police Budget Cuts


Mayor Miro Weinberger and Deputy Chief Jon Murad last December - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger and Deputy Chief Jon Murad last December
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is proposing to cut $1.1 million from the police budget next fiscal year in response to growing calls from activists to reduce police spending in favor of bolstering social services.

Only $300,000 of the savings would go to social services and other programs favored by activists. The rest — $800,000 — would go to filling a city budget deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The mayor's plan would further reduce the police budget by shifting an additional $800,000 to other parts of city government. The Department of Public Works, for instance, would take over parking enforcement duties, and the police department's data analyst would be paid for with Innovation & Technology Department funds.

Weinberger announced the proposed changes on Monday, three weeks to the day after George Floyd, a black man, died in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd's death has spurred a nationwide reckoning over racism in policing, a conversation that Weinberger said is long overdue.

"I share the sense of urgency that the protesters and hundreds of individuals who have called in to public meetings over the last week have shared," he said, referring to recent meetings that featured hours of public comments on "defunding" police.
"At the same time, there is a risk of moving too quickly," Weinberger continued. "If we make errors in how we proceed here, we could really undermine our goals by losing our good officers and making cuts that have unintended impacts."

Weinberger announced the cuts during a 3 p.m. press conference Monday. Shortly after, he presented the plan to the Board of Finance. Then it was on to a Burlington City Council meeting, where a record turnout of 800 people signed up to talk during the public comment portion of the virtual gathering. Most urged councilors to cut the police department budget by 30 percent, fire three officers involved in recent incidents of violence during arrests, and to use the money saved to invest in communities of color.

Weinberger's plan falls far short of meeting the activists' demands. It reduces the budgeted number of sworn officers from 105 to 93. Those positions were already vacant, so it won't reduce the number of cops currently on the job. The mayor's previous proposal would have filled four of those spots by January 2021.

The proposed police budget last week was $17.4 million. With the cuts, the mayor will present the city council with a $16.3 million police budget.

Weinberger proposed using $300,000 of those savings to fund a second position in the city's newly created Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging. The money would also go toward expanding social services, such as the Howard Center's Street Outreach Team, which dispatches social workers to calls involving people in mental health crisis or with substance use issues.

If revenues come in better than expected, the city could allocate more money to the other efforts, the mayor said. Otherwise, the remaining $800,000 in savings announced Monday would help fill a $12 million deficit in the city budget. 

The savings are not necessarily permanent. Weinberger plans to commission an outside analysis of the police department that will help determine whether the current size of the force is sufficient. That report is expected to be complete in March 2021.

"I think it would be wrong to commit to permanent cuts to the police department without a deliberative process informed by data and independent professional analysis. I am unwilling to make deeper cuts until we do that hard work," Weinberger said. "I know that will be a disappointment to some of the people who have reached out."

Members of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, an advocacy group led by people of color, have demanded the mayor cut 30 percent of uniformed officers, or about 31 total positions. Police leadership have said if enacted immediately, that plan would put Burlingtonians in danger.

Weinberger said he consulted with the police department chiefs, who said his proposed plan would not put the public at risk.

The alliance had also demanded that the city cease using school resource officers. But Weinberger's plan keeps that program intact because Burlington School District leadership communicated "very strongly, in writing" that they value having cops in schools, the mayor said.

Weinberger also said that he plans to declare racism a public health emergency later this week. Burlington would join a growing number of cities nationwide that have done the same, including Boston, Denver and Pittsburgh.

He will also seek a charter change that would make the mayor the ultimate authority in deciding police officer discipline.