The Burlington mayoral election is turning into a referendum on police policy and social justice, as Mayor Miro Weinberger has taken a strong stand for the local police department and won the backing of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association.
Last summer, the Burlington City Council voted to reduce police staffing levels by 30%. Since then, local police say they lack the resources fo early morning emergencies, and that a minimum of 76 officers are needed for around-the-clock policing. The city currently has just 78 police officers.
Amid nationwide calls for defunding police following the death of George Floyd in 2020, the council moved to cut staff, despite the mayor’s objections. Weinberger has been accused of racism for supporting local police, and for vetoing the formation of a community oversight board that would allow citizens to deal with alleged police misconduct.
Weinberger faces Ali Dieng, Patrick White, and Max Tracy. Dieng and Tracy are city councilors. The Burlington Police Officers’ Association is backing the mayor.
In a phone interview with True North, Burlington City Councilor Brian Pine, P-Ward 3, said he thinks there can be adequate police coverage at about national levels for a city of similar size and characteristics, even with the recent drops in staffing.
“We don’t just assume that since we’ve always had this level of officer coverage for every single shift, that that is necessarily the right number of officers per shift,” he said. “And so when the chief presents information and says that we are now putting this community at risk because we don’t have enough officers to cover every shift, it just begs the question about well, hey, if traffic stops went down by about 65 percent … and overall crime has gone down by 23 percent from 2016 to 2019 … you’ve got a pretty sharp reduction.”
He added that he doesn’t think an armed officer is always the best response for certain types of calls.
“What exactly do we need to have in terms of staffing and types of staff and whether they have a weapon or whether they don’t, whether they are coming out to do social service type calls, human services, referrals to different agencies, all the things that we could reduce the demands on police,” he said.
Among the candidates seeking to unseat Weinberger, Tracy also seeks a reduction in police staffing.
“Our racist national history — through a war on drugs and a school-to-prison pipeline — has led to policing with disproportionate frequency and severity in communities of color,” Tracy’s campaign website states. “This deeply impacts the hopes and futures of black and brown folks in our community. Burlington will not be whole until all People of Color who call it home receive the safety, respect, and support they deserve from their City.”
Tracy would like a “Community Oversight Board with meaningful disciplinary authority.” He also wants “reinvesting in BIPOC equal opportunity, cultural and economic empowerment, and direct services.”
In contrast, Weinberger is calling for maintaining a strong police force.
“Over the last nine years, Burlington became one of the first police departments in New England to deploy body cameras on all officers, fully embraced President Obama’s 21st Century Policing principles, severed its ties to the US military, overhauled its training and equipment for responding to acute mental health calls, dramatically reduced traffic stops, and led the local public health efforts to reduce opioid deaths by 50% in 2018 and 2019,” the mayor’s campaign website states.
He says there is still work to be done on “structural and cultural transformation” and they need to get rid of “systemic racism and achieves a new consensus on policing.”
Weinberger hasn’t always been at odds with the social justice movement. Back in July, he joined other state leadership in declaring racism “a public health emergency.”
Dieng has called for a non-reactionary approach to incidents of police violence.
“Much of what has been done in Burlington to date to address racism has only been in reaction to public outcry following specific incidents,” Dieng’s campaign page states. “We must be much more proactive, deliberate, and intentional in building our institutions, especially our public safety institutions, with a strong focus on racial justice.”
White shared his own thoughts on the matter on his campaign website: “There is an ever-present need for more training for our law enforcement officers. We need a police force focused on public safety with the training and experience to know when the use of force is appropriate and when it is not. To aid in this we need to get rid of the us vs. them mentality on both sides. Our officers are members of the community and our community members should feel safe asking them for help.”