Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad wants to use up to $1.27 million of the city's federal coronavirus recovery funds for bonuses to retain and recruit police officers.
The department roster has shrunk from 92 officers in June 2020 to 68 now — "an unprecedented rate of decline," Murad wrote in a memo to city councilors, who will consider the funding request at their meeting Monday. Only 65 officers are "deployable" as two are on a military deployment and another has an injury and is performing administrative duties, the memo says.
"Staffing shortages, increased overtime, and officer exhaustion are negatively affecting community engagement, response times, and the capacity to respond properly to incidents and follow through on casework," Murad wrote. "If staffing diminishes further, it will not only aggravate these conditions but also make it increasingly difficult to train new officers," as well as civilian employees who respond to nonemergency calls.
Murad submitted the "stabilization plan" in response to an August city council resolution that the chief bring the body "a strategy for recruitment and retention of police officers." It also comes amid months of public debate over appropriate staffing levels for the department. Just last week, an independent draft report obtained by Seven Days concluded that the department could provide adequate policing services with 76 to 83 officers on staff.
The chief has criticized councilors for cutting the police force last summer without bolstering public safety in other ways. Last December, he proposed adding unarmed civilians — community service liaisons, or CSLs, and community service officers, or CSOs — to respond to nonemergency calls.
The department has been implementing that plan "but still needs the support of police officers to train, work with, and backstop these roles and respond to calls for service throughout the city," Murad wrote.
Murad would like to use about $1.12 million of the city's $27 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds to offer $16,000 retention incentives for every currently employed officer. The money would be distributed in three payments, starting with $2,000 on November 15, $6,000 in September 2022 and another $8,000 sum in September 2023.
The recruitment bonus would pay 10 new recruits $15,000 over two years, using a total of $150,000 in ARPA funds.
Other departments are "offering increasingly attractive compensation packages, and Burlington needs to compete," Murad wrote. These include South Burlington, which offers a $7,000 hiring bonus to full-time certified officers, and St. Albans, which pays a $10,000 signing bonus, according to Murad's memo.
On Friday afternoon, Mayor Miro Weinberger threw his weight behind Murad's request, writing in a statement that "it is crystal clear that we must take immediate decisive action to stabilize the police department so we are able to keep our community safe."
Weinberger used the statement to again blame the council for officer departures and low morale within the department, saying the city faces a "stark reality" as the force dwindles.
"I once again am asking the City Council to send the message to the public and our officers that they share the priorities of public safety and maintaining a viable police department,” he wrote.
Councilors have already committed nearly $1.8 million of the federal funds toward various city initiatives, including $685,000 for public health measures, such as wastewater testing, purchasing face masks, supplying city employees with COVID-19 testing kits and offering a $100 bonus to city workers who are vaccinated by October 1.