Acting police Chief Jon Murad (right) listens as former Burlington city councilor Paul Decelles speaks in favor of raising the department's staffing cap
Burlington police commissioners voted unanimously on Monday to recommend that the city temporarily increase its police roster by eight officers, citing an unexpectedly high attrition rate in the year since the city council capped the department's staffing at 74.
The ultimate decision will lie with the city council, which is next scheduled to meet on August 9. It's unclear if the body will take up the issue then.
The vote marks the second time in several months that commissioners have called on the council to raise the staffing cap. And it comes as local business leaders have renewed their calls for an increased downtown police presence in light of recent violent incidents.
"We're losing a downtown for everyone because it does not feel safe and secure for people who want to come here," Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said prior to Monday's vote.
Meanwhile, the number of officers has fallen faster than anticipated: The department will likely have just 70 officers by the end of September, according to Seguino. Acting police Chief Jon Murad has said the number could drop to 59 based on the number of people eligible for retirement.
"Given the long lead time to hire new officers, BPD will remain understaffed relative to the cap of 74 for some time," Seguino's resolution said. It also calls on the city council to immediately hire two more unarmed social workers, also known as community support liaisons.
It's unclear when — or if — city councilors will take up the commission's staffing recommendation, given that they have already weighed in on the question of raising the cap this year.
In January, the police commission urged councilors to approve an 82-person roster “pending a fuller assessment of BPD and the overall public safety apparatus in Burlington.”
At the time, Mayor Miro Weinberger — who was in the midst of a mayoral campaign — had warned that the department’s “staffing crisis” was jeopardizing public safety, and both he and Murad pushed for 84 officers. But councilors didn't budge, narrowly voting to keep the cap at 74. The council subsequently voted 11-1 to hire unarmed social workers for the department.
Murad has since introduced a “priority response plan” for triaging calls due to lower staffing volumes. He has also used high-profile incidents, such as shootings, to call attention to the personnel challenges at One North Avenue.
Critics have charged that Murad uses these incidents as a scare tactic, and to drum up support for hiring more cops. But others argue that the precipitous drop in the number of cops has made Burlington less safe.
Devine, the business association director, said her organization recently launched an on-call safety escort service after some store owners reported losing employees who were afraid to walk home at night. "This isn't all in people's heads," she said, pointing to a number of recent violent incidents as proof, including several this past weekend alone.
In one incident on Saturday, a Burlington man allegedly punched and kicked another man in Battery Park several times, leaving him unconscious. The assailant allegedly made "malicious motivated statements of the victim’s perceived race/color," cops said.
Earlier that same morning, police responded to a shootout involving three people at a gas station across the street from the downtown City Market. More bullet casings were found near the waterfront skatepark.
Devine and several other attendees at Monday's meeting urged the police commission to do whatever it could to convince city councilors that more cops are needed.
"I have never felt less safe in this city than I do now," said Yves Bradley, a former police commissioner and longtime Burlington resident. "I implore you: Please work with the council, help them understand the situation we find ourselves in."
While all six commissioners present for Monday's meeting ultimately supported Seguino's resolution, at least one did so reluctantly: Melo Grant, who voted against making the same recommendation earlier this year because she wanted the city to wait for the upcoming consultant's study.
Explaining her change of heart, Grant cited the attrition figures and said that the study's arrival has been delayed several months. "I appreciate people not feeling safe," she said. "I definitely have experienced that myself. I am out and about on Church Street, sometimes late at night, and I do see certain aggressive behavior that is concerning."
At the same time, Grant questioned whether the answer is "adding more cops to the mix."
"I don't think we should have police officers in City Hall Park taking away liquor from people and pouring it out when they're just sitting there not doing anything," she said.
She said she hoped that the city could begin hiring more social workers as soon as possible. "We need to have a holistic approach," she said.