The Burlington City Council on Monday voted 11-1 against a resolution to allow the public to decide on Town Meeting Day if they want police staffing levels set at a higher cap that guarantees 24 hours a day minimal coverage.
The council also voted to delay any other decisions until their Feb. 8 meeting concerning how they will address what law enforcement and concerned citizens describe as a police staffing crisis.
“If we do not seek a remedy for staffing now, we will not be able to answer many of the low-level calls that are really opportunities to abate violence before it begins,” Burlington resident Amanda Schien said during a 90-minute public comment period.
The city has 79 officers now, but that number is expected to drop below 74 shortly, and could fall to as low as 59 by fall.
“Tonight, we just tried to begin the hiring process so that we can have enough staff to address calls 24/7 and maintain special services like our detective unit,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s one among you who believes that it’s not right for substance use counselors to address substance use calls, or for mental health counselors to address emotional distress. That work is valuable, it’s visionary and I wish that it existed years ago to help my own loved ones.”
The BPD’s 79 officers is below what local law enforcement leaders recommend as safe levels. Mayor Miro Weinberger asked the council this week to consider raising the 74-officer cap up to 84 as part of the “Public Safety Continuity Plan.” That plan includes hiring four to 10 new officers and other support positions with $150,000 put into the general fund for the costs. The council will consider it during their next meeting.
The proposal to put this issue to a vote on Town Meeting Day was put forth by Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7. The ballot question would have asked voters if the city should “maintain a minimum of 84 sworn police officers assuring adequate staffing levels to sustain 24-hour police patrols in the city.” Dieng put forth the initiative after police said they may need to reduce night patrols if the department has 76 or fewer officers.
In June 2020, the city adopted the “Racial Justice Through Economic and Criminal Justice” initiative that calls for a reduction in the force by 30 percent, from 105 officers down to 74.
Had Dieng’s measure been approved Monday night, voters would have been able to weigh in with a non-binding ballot vote.
At the start of the public comments, a letter was presented in favor of the mayor’s “Public Safety Continuity Plan.” It was signed by former mayor Peter Clavelle and 19 former city councilors, as well as by former state Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe.
“We recognize that public safety is more than just policing and agree there should be robust debate with how policing and public safety generally can be improved,” it states. “At the same time, abandoning reliable 24- hour service does not meet basic public safety standards, nor does it advance a responsible conversation about reform. Please do not lose focus of the acute impact a ‘no vote’ will have and the undue and needless risk it poses to all residents of Burlington.”
At least 20 speakers came to the meeting to speak about social justice causes and to make a case for why 74 officers is an acceptable cap for a city of Burlington’s size. Almost all of them identified themselves by race and cited their preferred gender pronouns before speaking.
“I’m white, I’m 25 years old, I use she/her pronouns,” said Burlington resident Lilla Fortunoff. ” … Police do not make the city safer for the most marginalized of us. When we’re thinking about what’s scary for Burlingtonians to not have police patrolling the streets, that is coded language for it’s scary for white Burlingtonians, it’s scary for Burlingtonians who historically have power.”
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Dieng told True North that the issue is important enough to have the community vote their views.
“Before we weigh in on it I just want to hear from the community first,” he said. ” … And it’s not for the people to make the decision, it’s for the people to advise the council.”
During the meeting Dieng said he thinks it’s important to reconsider having at least 84 officers.
“This is a number that came to us from those that have the expertise about the staffing at the police level,” Dieng said. “They made it very clear, from 74 we need 84 [officers].
Councilor William “Chip” Mason, D-Ward 5, said why he was among those who voted against Dieng’s proposal.
“We laid out a process and I don’t understand how this is this is benefiting the council as we move through that process,” he said.
Councilor Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4, also spoke against putting to a vote.
“If the voters do not like how we determine [city policies], then they need to get rid of us,” she said. “We cannot ask the voters for all of these specific things every single time we make a decision.”