The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is accusing Burlington's mayor and top cop of peddling “false narratives” about a Queen City crime spike that is not borne out by data.
In a letter shared with media outlets Thursday, ACLU Vermont general counsel Jay Diaz said that Mayor Miro Weinberger and acting police chief Jon Murad have wrongly blamed recent gunfire incidents on the city council’s decision last year to cut the police department’s staffing. These "scare tactics," Diaz wrote, have misled the public into thinking that Burlington has become a more dangerous place.
“This campaign of misinformation is evidently designed to instill fear, direct more funding to BPD, and undermine the progress the city has made up to this point,” Diaz wrote in the six-page letter, which he addressed to Weinberger. “It is not, however, supported by the facts — including BPD’s own data.”
The ACLU analyzed crime data between the months of January and August and found that police incidents have steadily fallen since 2016, from 26,000 that year to 14,000 in 2021. The same trend holds for violent crime: The city reported 490 violent incidents during the first eight months of 2016 and has reported fewer each year since, down to a five-year low of 359 in 2021.
"Burlington is making historic progress towards a more just, inclusive, and effective public safety system, while remaining one of the safest cities in the country," Diaz wrote. "These efforts must not be derailed by misinformation and scare tactics propagated by defenders of the status quo."
The ACLU letter represents the latest volley in the heated clash over whether efforts to reform Burlington policing have come at the expense of public safety. That question will continue to loom large as the city council prepares to receive a long-awaited outside assessment of the department later this month.
Weinberger responded to the letter with a written statement that said he welcomed Diaz’s endorsement of the city’s police reform efforts to date. But the mayor took issue with Diaz's “flawed analysis” and said that it should not “carry the day” as the city ponders BPD’s future.
“His dismissal of the significance of the recent dramatic increase in gunfire incidents, and failure to understand that there is a direct relationship between police investment and violent crime is badly out of touch with the major challenges facing the Police Department today,” Weinberger wrote.
Murad did not respond to requests for comment.
Weinberger and Murad have warned for months that BPD is on the verge of collapse thanks to the city council’s decision to cap its budgeted roster at 74 and reduce the force through attrition. More than a dozen cops have left since then, and more are on their way out, according to Murad, who has said low staffing levels are negatively impacting morale and performance.
The faster-than-anticipated exodus has twice prompted the city’s largely progressive police commission to request temporarily raising the roster cap so that the department can begin hiring replacements and, as Murad recently put it, “staunch the bleeding.” But the council denied both requests, with some councilors saying they wanted to wait for the findings of the coming assessment.
Meanwhile, a number of summer gunfire incidents has rattled some city residents and given Weinberger and Murad ammunition in their quest for more cops. Last month, the mayor said further officer departures could mean the city would "cease to have a functional police department."
Such comments represent little more than “overheated fearmongering" to Diaz, who accused Weinberger and Murad of deploying “exaggerated, speculative, and misleading political rhetoric” about public safety in Burlington.
Diaz took particular exception with Murad, noting that while the acting chief has acknowledged that crime is down overall, he has not made the same concession about violent incidents.
Instead, Murad has used a steady stream of press releases to beat the drum for a greater police presence, Diaz wrote. Murad, who took over the department in late 2019, has published 50 press releases so far this summer, many of which allude to a need for more cops, according to the ACLU. By contrast, BPD published only 54 press releases during the three previous summers combined.
“At the same time that Burlington is becoming safer, a skyrocketing number of BPD press releases appear aimed at creating a very different perception among the public,” Diaz wrote.
To be sure, the city has seen a slight uptick in violent crime this summer. The city reported 223 incidents between May and August of this year compared to 206 incidents during that time frame in 2019, according to the ACLU analysis. Still, this summer’s total was well below the 2016-2018 average for that time frame, which was 264.
There is no link between the “relatively small” reduction in BPD staffing levels and the gunfire incidents, Diaz argued, because police largely do not have the ability to prevent gun violence. “The most they can do is respond after the fact, gather evidence, and make an arrest,” he wrote.
There’s also no documented connection between police funding and crime rates on the national level, the attorney said. “Data has shown, however, that an increased police presence harms people and communities in significant ways — disproportionately communities of color — with negligible impacts on violent crime.”
Rather than waste its time debating staffing levels at BPD, Diaz wrote, Burlington leaders would be better served turning their attention to “true crises” impacting the city, such as a lack of resources for people suffering from mental health issues, pandemic-fueled housing and food insecurity, and an alarming spike in the number of overdoses.
Eighty-two overdoses have been reported in the city so far this year, Diaz said, far more than the 66 that occurred during the same period last year. “These should be Burlington’s top priorities, but they have taken a backseat in the debate over police staffing,” Diaz wrote.
Correction, September 9, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated the timeframes for the number of news releases that police have issued.