Yves Bradley, a Burlington business owner who recently retired as a police commissioner, subscribes to the "broken window" theory: The longer a window remains broken in a neighborhood, the more likely that area will be perceived as conducive to crime.
As crime increases, so does the seriousness of the offenses, until the neighborhood truly becomes a much more dangerous place than it used to be.
About 10 years ago, the broken-window theory prompted the Burlington Police Department's decision to launch community policing, a law-enforcement model that assumes that criminal investigation is only a small part of an officer's job. Community policing relies on residents and officers working together to monitor the "small stuff," such as broken windows, in hopes that more serious crimes such as shootings and drug dealing are less likely to occur. According to Bradley, through community policing, Burlington police officers have become better connected to the places they patrol and the people they are charged with protecting.
But is it working in the Old North End? A group of residents recently convened a meeting about a perceived increase in drug dealing and other crime in the area. More than 70 people showed up at Burlington College with questions for Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, who said he would fast track a review of the department's community-policing strategy. Originally scheduled for November, the process will be moved up to early fall.
Despite statistics that show crime is down in the neighborhood, some residents say a greater police presence is needed. Teresa Bryant, a manager at Larow's Market on North Street, attributes increased drug activity in part to a lack of active engagement by officers who patrol the area. "They need to make their presence more known," Bryant said.
In a later interview, Schirling said the department will gather citizen input on the policy before drafting short-, medium- and long-range strategies for improving departmental protocol.
But will it bring relief to residents? In a community-based policing model, Schirling explained, only 15 percent of an officer's time is allocated to criminal investigations and prosecution - the type of police work dramatized in television shows and movies. The other 85 percent, he explained, involves education, outreach and "alternative responses to low-level crime."
Oftentimes, residents ask officers to intervene in family problems - say, for example, when 10-year-olds refuse to attend school.
Schirling also said the "feedback loop" between law enforcement and the public that community policing relies upon is hard to maintain. The department tried to hold regular public-safety meetings beginning in 2000, he recalled, but the meetings "dropped off the map" for lack of interest.
"You can't expect people to go to a meeting about public safety every month, because people are busy," Schirling explained. "The challenge is to create meaningful mechanisms for people to provide feedback on a regular basis."
One of the most pressing challenges for Burlington's community-policing model is how to allocate the department's scarce resources. In Schirling's 19-year experience with the Burlington department, residents almost always want more officers on foot patrol - an important component of community policing.
But, right now, the department is short-staffed - 90 sworn officers versus a full-strength force of 100. More than a dozen personnel left during the last fiscal year, and a handful of officers are either on military deployment or on medical leave. While Shirling would love to have his officers interacting more directly with residents, putting more of them on the street now could hamper the department's emergency-response capabilities.
Schirling suggested that the virtues that make community policing such an attractive model also make it vulnerable to criticism, especially when frustrated residents want immediate action. For example, rather than raid a house where drug dealing is allegedly occurring, police officers might knock on the door and ask suspected dealers to knock it off.
Yves Bradley cautions that no matter what police do, concerned citizens will always harp on negatives. Moreover, he said, each of Burlington's six wards has specific issues that can't be addressed through a single, citywide policy.
"Being a cop is a really hard job," Bradley noted. "Very seldom do people say, 'Hey, thanks a lot - you did a great job.' It's more often, 'Where were you when I needed you, and why aren't you doing this?'"