- Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
- Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger speaking at a press conference on Thursday
The summer staffing plan, which has been in effect for almost three weeks, will sacrifice patrols in quieter neighborhoods so that BPD officers can prioritize an area of the city that generates more than half of the department's call volume.
Under the new plan, BPD will assign four people downtown during daytime hours. Two will be traditional, armed officers, and two will be civilian staffers known as community service officers who don’t carry guns and can't arrest people but can respond to quality-of-life complaints. Another two armed officers will roam the rest of the city.
It's all part of a new downtown public safety plan that Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has pitched as a way to foster a “safe, welcoming and inclusive" environment he says is lacking in the heart of the city.
“Too often last summer we experienced disruptive, intimidating and even dangerous incidents at City Hall Park and on the [Church Street] marketplace,” he said.
Weinberger, who the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont accused last year of peddling “false narratives” about a Queen City crime spike, did not cite any specific data to back up his argument but said that “many people” had told him they recently felt unsafe downtown.
"This kind of experience in our downtown is unacceptable, and what we're laying out today is a plan to turn this around," he said.
Along with the new police plan, the city will also rely on civilian staff — including members of a new "urban park ranger" program — to perform outreach and keep tabs on public spaces. The city has also planned more than 100 different events in an attempt to "bring the right people into the downtown," acting police Chief Jon Murad said Thursday.
"If we tell people to come, and people come, that alone makes a place safer, more secure and reinforces that safety in an ever-reinforcing circle," he said.
But as staffing levels began to fall in the wake of the city council's decision to downsize the police roster two years ago, the department could no longer staff each of the five zones. That forced police leaders to make tough decisions about where to deploy officers.
That's led to controversy at times. Murad faced criticism last year after Seven Days revealed that he was not staffing downtown on weekend overnights for at least part of the summer, despite the fact that it had a higher night-time call volume than anywhere in the city. Other neighborhoods, including the far less rowdy South End and the New North End, still had at least one dedicated late-night patrol.
The department began using an alternative staffing model last summer that ditched the five zones and instead assigned officers to either a north or south region. The change allowed the department to better cover the entire city with fewer officers but left downtown without a dedicated patrol day or night.
“Having a public safety presence is important, and we struggled to provide that sufficiently last summer,” Weinberger said of downtown.
That task has become only more difficult heading into this summer: BPD now has only 57 deployable officers, several dozen fewer than it had two years ago.
Officers will continue to respond to calls in other parts of the city, meaning that at times none will be in the immediate downtown area.
The protocol also only works when there are four armed offices on patrol, which is why it will only be used during the department's two daytime shifts. The "midnight shift," from 10:15 p.m. to 8:15 a.m., only has two officers assigned to it right now, Murad said.
That, of course, is when many of the most serious downtown incidents occur. But fewer calls come in during those hours overall, Murad said, and so moving officers from daytime shifts would only create a new gap. “Everything is a decision to rob Peter to pay Paul at this point."