After months of vociferous debate, the Burlington City Council voted to effectively allow the police department to hire up to 87 officers, up from a limit of 74 set in June 2020.
The early Tuesday morning vote technically set the limit at 79 officers, but the figure did not include the eight cops who are assigned to the Burlington International Airport.
The measure passed 8-4 after hours of debate at a meeting that began Monday evening. Progressive councilors Zoraya Hightower (Ward 1) and Jane Stromberg (Ward 8) joined the four council Democrats and two independents in favor.
"This is within range of what CNA recommended," Hightower said, referring to the Virginia-based nonprofit whose assessment of the department recommended a higher cap. "I think it is time for us to stop talking about numbers."
Also at the meeting, Mayor Miro Weinberger announced that the city would extend its deadline to evict the two-dozen residents of the Sears Lane homeless encampment in the South End — another highly charged topic.
Progressives led the charge in June 2020 to reduce the police force by 30 percent through attrition to 74 cops, including those at the airport. The department has now shrunk to fewer than 70 active officers, prompting Weinberger and acting Police Chief Jon Murad to twice ask councilors to raise the cap and avert a “public safety crisis.”
Until Monday, the majority of councilors had refused to heed those calls. They changed course after CNA's report recommended an "authorized headcount" of 77 to 80 sworn officers — not including those at the airport — to achieve an active force of between 72 to 75 cops. The city released the report earlier this month.
Councilors debated the appropriate staffing level for two hours. The resolution introduced by councilors Joan Shannon (D-South District), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) and Mark Barlow (D-North District) asked for an 80-officer cap, not counting the airport contingent. The Progs countered with 81 total cops, including the airport. They eventually relented and proposed 77 officers — not including the airport — with the understanding that the council wouldrevisit the airport question another time.
Near the meeting's end, Shannon introduced the final amendment to set the cap at 79, not including the airport.
The decision is a win for Weinberger, who had called for a roster in the 85- to 88-officer range after receiving the CNA recommendations.
Before the vote, the mayor made clear he was frustrated with the councilors' continued quibbling. He blasted the council Progressives for cutting the number of officers last year and then complaining that the conversation was too focused on the cap. The mayor said the Progressives needed to approve an 80-officer headcount in order to keep the department's special investigations unit, which focuses on sex-based crimes and child abuse, and its domestic violence prevention officer.
"If you vote for that, you are voting for a functional police department; if you're voting against that, I think you're voting against a functional police department, and I don't think we're ever going to get to an agreement until there's a change in this council," Weinberger said.
A few meeting attendees also spoke in favor of preserving the domestic violence prevention officer position. Amanda Skehan was one, but as soon as she broached the topic, others in the audience booed and laughed. Skehan went on to say that she's a domestic violence survivor who didn't report her assailant at the time because she felt ashamed.
"How valuable is it, then, to have an officer who can get to know victims and build trust, to know the person more than the chaos that they're living through?" Skehan asked. "A domestic violence officer can build trust so that statutes can be used to bring victims to safety when they're ready."
Progressive councilors Jack Hanson and Zoraya Hightower
The decision to raise the cap could ease the concerns of some in Burlington’s business community who have been vocal about bad behavior downtown. After some workers reported being harassed and assaulted at night, the Burlington Business Association launched an on-call program in July for “safety escorts” who would accompany people to and from their vehicles and workplaces.
Over the weekend, a group of business owners issued a statement saying that workers who had called the hotline got no response. The letter also accused the city of not funding the escort program and implied that the city is collecting a 2 percent surcharge on restaurant tabs without using it for its intended purpose of providing public safety services.
Neither claim is true, however. Katherine Schad, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the receipts tax was never intended to support public safety programs, and she confirmed that the council allocated $2,400 to the safety escort program in August.
Weinberger thanked the council for its decision in a press release sent out after 1 a.m. Tuesday.
"It will take a long time to repair the grave decline of our public safety capacity that was initiated last June, but tonight’s action does send a positive message to our officers and the Burlington community that public safety and maintaining a viable department remain a shared goal of the Administration and the Council," he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Democrats blocked a move by Progressives to introduce a measure to halt the eviction at Sears Lane.
Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3) wanted to add the item to the agenda, but needed eight votes of the 12-member council; he ultimately fell one short in a party-line vote. Independent Councilor Barlow joined the four council Dems in defeating the motion, while Councilor Dieng voted with the six Progs.
The vote came minutes after Weinberger announced that he would extend the campers’ move-out date from October 19 to October 26. The Vermont Department for Children and Families will provide funding as the Sears Lane residents find new housing, and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity will offer them hotel assistance and transportation “to ensure a safe transition,” Weinberger said.
The city will store the campers’ belongings for up to 30 days.
Weinberger had announced the mass eviction last week following two arrests at the site. One man was cited for trafficking methamphetamine and another for threatening city firefighters with a pellet gun.
The camp has operated on city property for years, and in recent weeks, officials had tried without luck to find a partner to manage the site. But Weinberger said the recent criminal activity had made the camp’s existence “untenable and unacceptable.”
In response, Progressive councilors criticized the mayor for displacing vulnerable people at a time when the state’s COVID-19 cases are at their highest since the start of the pandemic. The Progs also argued that the Sears Lane campers would simply relocate to other parts of the city. On Monday night, Councilor Magee was steadfast in his opposition to the eviction, even with an extended deadline.
“I remain concerned, deeply concerned, that the capacity of our services in the city to support unhoused folks is overextended,” he said. “I am not confident that folks at Sears Lane will be able to find housing in this short period of time.”
Hours before Monday’s meeting, Jay Diaz, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, issued a statement saying the city’s eviction plan “is not only cruel – it also violates the terms of a settlement agreement the city entered just two years ago.”
Signed in December 2019, that settlement requires the city to provide campers with a written notice to vacate that outlines the reasons why a shelter would be removed. Diaz said the ACLU sees “no grounds for the emergency removal or the collective punishment of these members of our community.”
The topic garnered impassioned commentary from both sides of the debate. Business owners and parents of children who attend the nearby Champlain Elementary School expressed concern about the criminal activity at the camp. Dozens of others — including some current and former residents of the Sears Lane site — pleaded for the city to stop the eviction.
"How is downtown going to get safer when all these people have nowhere to go?" Burlington resident Thaya Zalewski asked. "Here's a community of people that have taken their agency and made it a community out of nothing. We need to give these people the support so they can continue living their lives and take care of each other, and address the real dangers in our community, like police."
Later in the meeting, councilors approved a resolution that would give the city’s civilian police commission more oversight powers.
Commissioners already review complaints against officers, but the resolution aims to formalize their role in the process by allowing them to hire their own independent attorney and initiate probes into police misconduct, among other powers.
The plan has been vetted by the council's bipartisan Public Safety Committee for months. It's been in motion ever since Weinberger vetoed a proposal late last year that would have created an independent "community control board" with the ability to investigate and discipline cops for misconduct, bypassing the police chief's authority. That proposal would have required a charter change.
After introducing the resolution on Monday, Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, proposed adding a provision that essentially paves the way to create another "body that is independent from the Burlington Police Department."
After some debate, even councilors who disagreed with the premise of Paul's amendment agreed to pass the resolution. The council's Charter Change and Ordinance committees will now consider it.