The Burlington City Council will not increase the police department's staffing cap despite warnings from Mayor Miro Weinberger that such a move will jeopardize public safety.
Weinberger had asked councilors to increase the maximum roster count from 74 to 84 officers — a reversal of a council decision last June to shrink the size of the force. As soon as the mayor's proposal was introduced at a council meeting on Monday night, Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) proposed an amendment to strike any reference to increasing the department cap.
After hours of debate, a slim 7-5 council majority approved Hightower's amendment. All six Progressives voted in favor, while Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), a candidate for mayor, cast the decisive seventh vote.
The final resolution, however, passed with an 11-1 vote because it included other public safety reinforcements that had bipartisan support. Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) voted against the measure.
"A yes vote for this amendment is a vote to go over the edge into that crisis, to accept it, and to welcome it," Weinberger said. "This is a vote that will be remembered by Burlingtonians for a long time."
The council also voted in June to study appropriate police staffing numbers, but that process had been delayed for months. On Monday night, councilors awarded a $99,525 contract to a Virginia-based nonprofit called CNA to analyze "who, what, where, and how the department polices." Hightower, who helped choose the contractor, said she's unsure how long the assessment will take.
Councilors didn't completely shun Weinberger's proposals. The resolution that passed included aspects of the mayor's "continuity plan" meant to backfill officer vacancies with civilian professionals. It authorizes the department to hire four unarmed "community service officers" to respond to non-emergency calls and three "community support liaisons" to aid people experiencing mental health crises and substance use issues.
Hightower said the city should invest in such staff instead of armed police. She said she doesn't think the staffing "crisis" is as dire as Weinberger has described and urged her fellow councilors to not back down from last summer's resolution, which was approved by nine of 12 councilors.
"We need to hold ourselves to doing the transformation work, which we have not done," Hightower said. "If we don't do the hard work, we'll say, 'Oh, let's just slowly go back to the way it was.'"
Weinberger argued that the city's previous staffing allowance of 100 or more officers had tri-partisan support for years. He charged that the council arbitrarily chose 74 as an appropriate cap. Fellow Democrats as well as Councilor Dieng, an independent, have labeled Progressives' "defunding" plan as reactionary and ill-informed.
Later in the meeting, Paulino proposed raising the cap to 79 officers, but the motion failed in a 6-6 tie. Paulino, who is not running for reelection in March, called the staffing vote "the most important" in his two years on council.
"Certain members of this body seem to be substituting their judgment for those who we’ve entrusted with operational control," Mason said, adding, "We've created this problem, and we've been afforded the lifeline to potentially solve it."
Hightower's plan was supported by fellow Progressives, who championed the cuts in the first place. Even City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), who normally moderates the meetings, passed the gavel so he could join the debate. Tracy, who is running for mayor, said increasing the staffing cap would enshrine a public safety system that disproportionately targets people of color.
Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) agreed and chided Weinberger for painting councilors as being willing to put the public in danger.
"The notion that we're creating this really dark, dark, dangerous place that folks are going to be at risk — I think that's a real disservice," Pine said. "It's really unfortunate that that has been the narrative that has emerged in this conversation, that you're either for safety or you're against it."
Watch the full meeting below; video courtesy of Town Meeting TV: