On Tuesday’s Vermont Edition program, James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, and Liam Elder-Connors, a Vermont Public crime reporter, discussed crime trends in Burlington — and said crime may not be rising as much as residents think.
“We’re seeing from police and defenders of the status quo a return to the tough on crime narrative, and that’s taking hold in places like Burlington, and is showing up now in national news coverage — saying the city used to be safe but then supposedly defunded the police, and the city won’t be safe again unless or until they hire more police to get tougher on crime,” Lyall said.
He added that the root causes for increased crime are more about the deteriorating economic status in the local communities and less about reductions in officers patrolling the streets.
“If the focus is on police levels, which it has been incessantly for the past two years, that doesn’t get to the root causes and it doesn’t get to the solutions. It actually distracts from the root causes and solutions that we need to be working towards,” Lyall said.
Vermont Edition host Connor Cyrus cited a poll showing 56% of Vermonters believe that crime is up in their area. He noted that is the highest point for that statistic in five decades.
Elder-Connors noted gun-related incidents are up in the Queen City.
“We do see there are 25 gun-related incidents, which is when a gun is fired in a criminal way, and that is up quite a bit from what has traditionally been the case in Burlington,” he said.
From 2012 to 2019 the city averaged about two incidents a year involving guns.
Elder-Connors also reported that aggravated assaults, stolen vehicles, and drug overdoses are up, but some other crimes, such as disorderly conduct, are down.
“An important point is that violent offenses have generally declined since 2012,” he said.
Both guests ultimately challenged the narrative that crime is rising. However, callers to the program, including at least one business owner in the city, claimed that crime is in fact way up.
The first caller, simply identified as Julie, she said she’s a landlord in Burlington and a former resident.
“Five or six years ago I lived on my property on Elmwood Avenue. And the experience that I had then was that when there was an issue and we had to call the police, the response was nearly immediate. Today, when my tenant and I have to call the police for the same type of incident, the response time is 4 to 5 hours to wait, which is obviously too late to really do anything about the immediate threat.”
She also said multiple tenants have broken their leases to escape the rise in crime.
Another caller, identified as “Tiki in Burlington,” also said crime is rising.
“Unreported crimes are markedly increased, and one can sense that not just from walking around or looking at Front Porch Forum for example, where there are a number of posts from folks … reporting property crimes and that sort,” he said.
In 2020, Burlington City Council voted to cut the police force by 30%, taking its cap from 105 down to 74. Funds were reallocated to unarmed officers or social workers to aid in such areas as mental health calls.
However some police officers chose to leave right away.
“That ended up happening a lot faster than expected and officers started leaving in droves,” Elder-Connors said. “The number dropped really, really quickly.”
On Thursday, the Vermont ACLU tweeted that increased funding for law enforcement and prisons misses the “root cause” of violence.
"If throwing money at police and prisons made us safer, we would probably already be the safest country in the history of the world. We are not, because insufficient punishment is not the root cause of violence." #vtpolihttps://t.co/lL61fLQA22
— ACLU of Vermont (@ACLUVermont) December 15, 2022
However, Burlington continues to make headlines for its rise in serious crimes, with the latest by the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
“The largest city in Vermont has seen homicides spike to a level unmatched in more than 60 years in the wake of a push to defund the police,” The Washington Examiner reported on Tuesday.
The entire Vermont Edition program on crime in Burlington can be heard online here.