- File: Oliver Parini
- A Burlington officer
The discourse started two years ago, when George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police sparked a nationwide reckoning with racial justice. In Burlington, city councilors swiftly voted to reduce the Queen City’s cop count by 30 percent through attrition. Since then, the department has shrunk from 91 active cops to just 54, resulting in what Mayor Miro Weinberger and acting Chief Jon Murad have called a public safety crisis. A recent increase in gunfire incidents in particular has prompted the officials to call for the hiring of more officers.
Next week, Weinberger will ask councilors to approve a budget that includes $1.12 million in hiring bonuses, housing stipends and other incentives for new police recruits, plus raises for officers. The pay bump would be included in a new police union contract. The current contract expires June 30 — the council’s deadline to vote on the budget.
Weinberger and Murad have implied that this “rebuilding plan” will reverse the trend of a more dangerous Burlington. The police union agrees: If the council doesn’t hire more officers, members wrote in a recent statement, “the safety of the public will continue to deteriorate.”
Crime has ticked up in many American cities since the pandemic, including in places that did not cut their police forces. A surge in gun-related incidents — and in some places, property crime — is fueling the theory that public spaces have become less safe.
The same sentiment exists in Burlington. People visiting and working downtown have reported feeling fearful, prompting the Burlington Business Association last summer to create a program to escort people to their vehicles after dark. Television news media regularly report on crimes, and people frequently post on social media about how Burlington is declining. The county’s top prosecutor, Sarah George, is facing a primary challenge in August from an opponent who says she’s too soft on crime.
Is the perception about public safety a reality? Seven Days’ analysis of 10 years of crime data paints a more nuanced picture. The incidence of certain crimes has indeed increased short-term, including burglaries, car break-ins and other thefts that make residents feel unsafe. More gunfire incidents have been reported, too, in recent years. But overall, the volume of crime remains well below what it was a decade ago, having dropped by nearly a third since 2012. Of the crimes that did increase since the police cuts, most went up only slightly, and the majority were nonviolent offenses.
- Burlington Police Department
- Long-term crime trends in the Queen City
It’s true that fewer police are available to respond to calls — at a time when a growing percentage of those calls are classified as “Priority 1,” requiring an immediate police response.
But most of the calls driving that increase weren’t even to report crimes. Priority 1 call data show that cops delivered more restraining orders for courts and responded to more 911 hang-ups, vehicle crashes, overdoses and suicide attempts in 2021 than in 2020. Calls for many serious crimes either declined, stayed level or increased only slightly.
To Weinberger and Murad, the data tell just one part of the story. The number of certain offenses may be comparatively lower, but they argue that crime trends today, and the city’s ability to respond, are more important.
Police reform advocates, meanwhile, say city leaders need to reassure the public that despite some troubling trends, Burlington isn’t a dangerous place. Some argue that not all crime can be solved by hiring cops.
“It makes sense to be scared if you're living somewhere where there’s a rising case of gunfire,” Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) said of Burlington. “[But] the answer to that can’t be that we just have somebody else who’s armed on every street corner.”
Crime in Burlington did increase between 2020 and 2021, as businesses and activities that had been shut down during the early part of the pandemic were reopening. The department recorded 3,767 total offenses last year, 350 more than in 2020. The 10.2 percent increase year over year was mostly attributable to a jump in theft-related crime.
The largest spike was in thefts from vehicles. Police counted 455 of these crimes in 2021, the most since the department began tracking the figure in 2012 using Valcour, its digital record-keeping system. By contrast, there were 213 such reports in 2019 and 300 in 2020.
Grand larcenies and felony-level “unlawful mischief” — stealing items worth more than $900 and causing more than $1,000 in property damage, respectively — both rose in 2021, notching their highest level in the last decade. Burglaries clocked in at 205, the most since 2017.
“Gunfire incidents” have also increased, though unlike other offenses, the term doesn’t have a corresponding legal definition. Murad uses the phrase to describe instances when a firearm is discharged in a criminal manner.
Valcour does not have a distinct classification for gunfire incidents; the department tracks them with an internal spreadsheet. Burlington averaged about two incidents per year through 2019, according to the spreadsheet. Since then, each subsequent year has had a dozen or more. Of the 13 gunfire incidents so far in 2022, four have involved someone struck by a bullet or shrapnel. Nobody has been killed.
More people committed lewd acts, stole vehicles and sold fentanyl in 2021 when compared to the prior two years. There were also slight upticks in some violent offenses, such as aggravated assaults and felony-level assaults on emergency responders.
But overall, violent crime is at its lowest point in a decade. Rates dropped 13.2 percent between 2019 and 2021. And some offenses that increased year over year are still relatively low. Burglaries are down 44 percent from 2012, and unlawful mischief has declined 30 percent over that period.
Some news outlets have quoted sources who claim retail theft has been rampant. But there were only six more shoplifting crimes in 2021 than the previous year, and the number of cases is half what it was in 2016, the data show. Police did, however, count more high-value thefts in 2021 than in prior years.
Stephanie Seguino, co-chair of the Burlington Police Commission and a University of Vermont professor who studies police data, said historical context is vital to understanding crime in a community. The spike in gunfire is concerning, she said, but added that long-term data show Burlington is generally safer now than it was five years ago.
“The narrative that crime is increasing in Burlington is inaccurate,” she said. “Retail theft is a good example of that.”
Murad disagreed. He said retail theft data is artificially deflated because business owners aren’t reporting shoplifters, knowing that police are too understaffed to respond.
- File: Luke Awtry
- Mayor Miro Weinberger and acting Chief Jon Murad
Murad said he focuses on more immediate data to help determine daily operations. Similarly, he prefers examining calls for service, instead of offense counts, to get a baseline on police activity.
Murad said this year’s call data is concerning. Through June 1, people have reported 381 thefts, 105 stolen vehicles and 33 aggravated assaults — all of which exceed the totals for the same date range in each of the last five years.
Weinberger and Murad agree that the department needs more officers to combat the worsening trends. The $1 million rebuilding plan to be voted on Monday aims to bring the department up to 85 sworn officers, just two short of its authorized cap, over the next three years. Beyond earmarking $500,000 for pay raises, the plan includes $270,000 for signing bonuses, $200,000 to hire a recruitment firm and $150,000 for perks such as housing, education and childcare stipends.
Most of that would be paid for with money left over from the department’s fiscal year 2022 budget, plus unspent coronavirus relief funds that the council already allocated for recruitment and retention. The Queen City Police Foundation, a nonprofit booster organization, would cover about $150,000.
Earlier this month, some councilors questioned whether the plan was the best use of money. Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) suggested the city should use some of the rebuilding budget to plug a $600,000 funding gap for a new crisis response team. Based on Eugene, Ore.’s “CAHOOTS Model,” the program would deploy clinically trained professionals to calls involving mental health or substance use.
Burlington has reserved $400,000 of the $1 million needed to start the program. Weinberger said he’s asked the state to kick in the balance.
Progressives on the council, who are often at odds with Weinberger on public safety matters, aren’t expected to fight the mayor’s rebuilding plan. But some are skeptical that investing in more cops will significantly reduce crime.
Councilor Hightower, for one, said the increase in property crime illustrates a well-documented pandemic trend: Poverty, substance use and other social problems are worsening. Calls about overdoses in Burlington went up nearly 72 percent following the state of emergency in March 2020, BPD’s data show; mental health-related calls increased 7 percent over the same time period.
Stationing a cop outside a store might deter theft, Hightower said, but the extra officer won’t solve the underlying issue that causes it.
“A lot of the calls are really rooted in folks struggling,” she said. “To continue to move toward a model of community care and prevention is going to be one of the only ways to address this."
Seguino, the police commissioner, said the data highlight opportunities to deploy other city staff in place of armed officers. Welfare checks, when officers stop by a person’s home to make sure they’re OK, have gone up nearly 50 percent since 2012. Reassigning these calls to the department’s community support liaisons, who function as social workers, could free up police for more important things, Seguino said. She suggested non-police personnel could also respond to car crashes — another driver of the 2020-2021 jump in calls — noise complaints and lost property.
“We are down a worrisome number of police officers,” Seguino said, “[but] we do have this additional support, which makes the situation less concerning.”
To be sure, Weinberger’s overall fiscal year 2023 budget would double the number of unarmed community support liaisons from three to six. It would also grow the squad of community service officers — who help with tasks such as parking enforcement and traffic control — from 10 to 12.
But the mayor and chief maintain that police need to be part of the equation, too. If the city doesn’t bolster its ranks, Murad said, “we are in real trouble.”
Hightower supports the rebuilding plan but said there’s no guarantee it will work. The council already allocated thousands of dollars toward hiring incentives, and a chunk of that money is still unspent. Alternate models of public safety, on the other hand, are a sure way to reduce the demand on cops, she said. This budget provides that opportunity.
“It’s very easy to continue to pay for more police officers, which is part of the reason we’ve over-invested in one over the other,” Hightower said. “I think that we are rebalancing right now.”