By Guy Page
Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad graduated from Harvard. Twice.
Raised in Underhill by a UVM Spanish professor father and a Cuban-born UVM professor mother, Murad graduated from Mt. Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, where none of his friends would have picked him to be a career police officer. He studied English and drama at Harvard, graduating in 1995.
“I knew my Keats from my Yeats,” he told “Generally Irritable” host Ericka Redic of Burlington in a December 28 Facebook interview. “It wasn’t necessarily something I applied to the life that followed.”
No kidding! After graduation, “I went out to L.A. to become famous. It didn’t work out.” The aspiring actor got a few bit parts. Oddly enough, he was often cast as a cop.
Still – an actor, becoming a cop for real? What happened?
“9/11 intervened,” Murad said. “I realized I wasn’t contributing, and I wanted to.” It wasn’t a Pat-Tillman-on-the-Damascus-Road decision. It was more gradual. He got back together with his college girlfriend (now his wife), moved to New York City, spent a year in publishing (hated it) and then took the NYPD exam. Two months later, he was a rookie cop.
“I loved it from the beginning,” Murad said. He worked the projects in the Bronx where presumably the Spanish he heard at home came in handy. His mother grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood. He found satisfaction in “being a presence for the folks in those neighborhoods who really do want a police presence.”
The English major’s NYPD career took off. He returned to Harvard Kennedy School of Government for a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. He graduated in 2013 with distinction, as shown by his selection to give the commencement speech.
In the Bronx and in Burlington, only a small percentage of residents embrace the criminal life. In round numbers, of 5,000 people in the Bronx neighborhoods, only 50 are gang members. Only five are gang leaders. The exact percentages may not be the same in Burlington, but the principle applies, Murad said.
Then the talk turned to Burlington’s underfunded, undermanned police department. “A lot of the rhetoric today is ‘defund the police, get rid of the police,’” Redic said. “Everyone’s concerned we’re going to lose overnight coverage.” Burlington PD is now down to 41 patrol officers. If it gets down to 36, Burlington would lose 3 a.m.-7:30 a.m. “active coverage” in the New North End. If a serious crime is reported, an officer would respond, but there would be no active patrolling and ‘lesser’ crimes could go unheeded.
Retirement and attrition could lead Burlington from 81 sworn officers to 59 by this coming September – and that might not even be the worse case scenario. “From that 59 you would have to staff the airport,” and leadership, and detectives, and community affairs, and CUSI (sex crimes unit). The domestic violence prevention officer may be reassigned as a patrol officer. The community affairs already has been reassigned to patrolling (beginning next month). An uptick in graffiti will be a likely consequence, Murad said.
Do Burlingtonians – and especially the defunders – know this? Redic asked.
“This information was shared [at ‘defund the police’ hearings] in June,” Murad said. “It feels more pressing now.” City councilors told WCAX at the time they knew information this, ‘but we went ahead believing we would figure out something.’
Since then, “there hasn’t been any figuring,” Murad said. A proposal made to the city council last week may plug some holes in the dike.
During his grad school year at Harvard, Murad worked the Marathon bombing. At one point he was 15 feet away from the site of the first bomb explosion. He’s concerned that in an “all hands on deck” catastrophe like a Marathon (or Nashville) bombing, BPD could get caught shorthanded. Even after calling in federal and other police resources, BPD would have a hard time mounting an effective response and performing other crucial duties.
Defunders argue policing isn’t the best way to solve many social problems. Murad agrees that for drug use and mental illness, police aren’t the optimal agencies to deal with those problems. However, right now they are “it.”
“There is no other agency currently available,” Murad said. “Our neighbors call us for those issues.” And even if/when non-police responders are online, they will need police support.
Redic, a recovering drug addict, said if she hadn’t been arrested and sentenced for her drug-related crimes, she wouldn’t have had the personal resources to get clean and sober. The “let the sick people just live on the street” approach doesn’t work, she said.
Murad said Vermont needs a system of greater custodial care for people with mental health and drug issues. In 2012, Tropical Storm Irene eliminated what remained of the custodial mental health capacity in Waterbury, Murad said. Vermont must invest in this.
“They [the Legislature] seem to have money to spend on things like climate crisis and solar power,” Redic said. “Are we saying that solar panels are more important than a mental health facility?”
That’s a sound policy question, but one above a police-chief’s pay grade. For now, Murad will continue to protect and serve as best he can. As chief, that means not only running the department day-to-day but trying to hire and train officers to replace the expected losses of patrol officers by working with a city council that includes members firmly committed to defunding.
What effect has the pandemic had on policing in Burlington?
Burlington is down from 29,000 calls to about 23,000 due to the pandemic. But the serious crime calls – robberies, etc. – are up 6 percent, Murad said. He’s concerned that “once we go back to living a normal life, our town is going to have a lot of exuberance,” he said. “We know the nightlife is going to recover. They will be back – with vigor. And we won’t have the necessary staffing to cover a bar closing at night.”
Find other episodes of “Generally Irritable,” including a December interview with a Burlington police commissioner, on Facebook.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.