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Date: 2021-09-09 23:03:24
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The Burlington Police Department issued press release after press release this summer.
But police data analyzed by VTDigger and separately by the ACLU of Vermont — which published its analysis in a letter Thursday morning — suggests that while the rate of press releases is increasing, the rate of crime is not.
The civil liberties organization has accused Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and other city officials of concocting a narrative in an effort to increase the ranks of the Burlington Police Department.
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“This campaign of misinformation is evidently designed to instill fear, direct more funding to BPD, and undermine the progress the city has made up to this point,” says the letter, signed by Jay Diaz, general counsel of the ACLU of Vermont.
The data shows gunfire incidents in the city are increasing in frequency: In 2016 there were two gunfire incidents; in 2021 so far there have been 12. But overall crime has been trending downward for years in Burlington, including violent crime specifically — such as homicides, robberies and assaults.
In an interview with VTDigger Thursday, Weinberger said that while he appreciates the ALCU’s contributions to progressive policing policies, he believes the letter understates the severity of increasing gunfire incidents. He also denies that he’s perpetuated any misinformation about crime in the city, a critique that he called “unfair” and “frustrating.”
Weinberger recognized that progress has been made in lowering crime overall since 2015. “But that progress is being eroded since 2020,” he said, due to the decrease in police staffing.
Last summer, City Council members made a pivotal decision — they voted to reduce the Burlington Police Department’s staffing levels by 30% through attrition and invest the savings in more social services and racial justice initiatives.
But 15 months later, the police force has shrunk through attrition faster than officials expected. The force has been depleted from a 91-officer operation last summer to 76 members today.
Some in the city have pushed to raise the 74-officer cap, to no avail. Enough city councilors, mainly Progressives, have blocked the efforts, arguing the city should wait for a highly anticipated assessment of the police department’s resources. The report is expected — behind schedule — later this month.
In press releases from the BPD, the police staffing pressures have been linked closely with violent crime in Burlington this summer.
“Short-staffed and stretched, Burlington’s officers did excellent work in the predawn hours” in responding to a report of gunfire, Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad stated in a press release about an incident in May.
“This high rate of gunfire incidents, that is such a significant departure from our norm, is unacceptable,” Weinberger said in a press release about a bullet hole found last month in an Edmunds Middle School window. “It is clear that we need to urgently return resources to the police department and invest fully in the public safety services that Burlingtonians need and expect.”
The Burlington Business Association said it set up a downtown escort system to keep residents, particularly women, safe from an “increase in violent attacks.”
But, in an interview with VTDigger last week, Chittenden County’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Sarah George, told VTDigger that the focus on gunfire incidents is misleading.
“The shootings that are happening, which are horrific and incredibly dangerous, they’re actually somewhat of a red herring when we’re talking about crime in general in Burlington,” George said.
She says conversations about these shootings are pushing a perception that crime is rising in the city, “and allowing for people to, frankly, take advantage of that narrative.”
A number of the gunfire incidents this summer have not yet yielded arrests. But based upon George’s reading of affidavits in cases the city has more information on, and anecdotal information from people within the courts, authorities believe that most of the gunfire incidents involve a small group of people.
She said she doesn’t have enough information to say if they might be gang- or drug-related conflicts.
Overall, Burlington police incident volume has been trending downward since 2015, according to a VTDigger analysis of the police department’s data. In fact, it’s been reduced by almost half since 2015.
In 2015, a total of 37,292 incidents involved police. That number has been steadily decreasing, and last year, 23,565 incidents were recorded.
Call volume for “priority one” responses — the most serious incidents police respond to — has essentially remained steady over the same timeframe, dipping slightly in the past few years.
VTDigger found that violent crimes, which do not encompass all priority one calls, have decreased since a 2015 peak. In its analysis of BPD data, VTDigger considered the following crimes as violent: simple assault, aggravated assault, bomb threats, homicide, kidnapping, lewd and lascivious conduct, reckless endangerment, robbery, sexual assault, stalking, unlawful restraint, arson, burglary and domestic assaults.
In 2015, the city experienced 814 violent crime incidents. The rate steadily decreased to 516 in 2019 and to 498 in 2020, a year in which overall activity was down in part because of the pandemic.
The ACLU found that there is a slight increase in year-to-date violent crime data from 2020 to 2021. So far in 2021, the city has seen 359 violent crimes, according to the BPD data, representing a slight increase for the same period of 2020, when the city saw 339 such incidents.
The only subset of violent crime that’s increased at a high rate in the past five years is gunfire incidents.
The city is reporting an uptick in two areas of incidents that are not inherently violent, but place a heavy strain on police resources: drug overdoses and mental health issues.
According to a presentation Murad gave to Police Commission members Aug. 24, year-to-date data showed that in 2017 police had responded to 590 mental health issues; this year, calls had risen to 645.
In 2017, police had responded to 48 overdoses by this point in the year; that number swelled to 72 for 2021.
Domestic conflicts have remained steady: 372 incidents at this point in both 2017 and 2021. So have sexual assaults: 35 at this point in 2017, and 31 this year.
In a conversation with VTDigger Thursday, Weinberger pointed to the year-to-date increase in violent crime that 2021 has seen over 2020. He said he thinks this 20 incident increase is indicative of the BPD’s shrinking police force. He argues that if more officers were on the streets patrolling, there would be more opportunities to prevent crime.
“I think it is naive to think that a dramatic decrease in officers, without there being an increase in other types of public safety investments and support, would not have an impact on crime,” he said.
It’s hotly contested whether crime rates can be lowered by the presence of more police in a community. Some studies have found that more cops in communities lower crime rates. But some have challenged these findings, stating that more police spending hasn’t significantly contributed to less or more crime.
Diaz challenged the mayor’s correlation hypothesis — if more cops equates to less crime, he questions why incident levels were significantly higher in 2015 and 2016 when the BPD had around between 90 and 100 officers on staff.
He also questioned why the mayor wouldn’t want to highlight the overall trend that violent crime is decreasing over the past six years.
“It's hard to understand why a mayor would not want people to know that the city is a very safe place and getting safer,” Diaz said.
Murad told commissioners at their Aug. 24 meeting that about half of the drop in overall incidents results from a change in department policy about traffic stops. Traffic stops have declined dramatically since 2015, partly because officers have become better at prioritizing when a stop is necessary, partly because of the legalization of marijuana, and partly because, as Murad told commissioners, officers now don’t have the time to stop cars.
He told VTDigger Thursday that while the overall incident volume in the city has decreased, so have the number of his officers, while overall priority one incidents have largely remained the same.
“We are talking about far fewer officers to deal with … per capita a larger number of incidents,” he said.
Police Commissioner Stephanie Seguino told VTDigger it’s important to note that this priority change still accounts for only half of the incident decrease in the city during the past five or six years.
Seguino said she understands that some Burlington residents are fearful because of violent crimes that have been recently publicized and linked to low staffing in the police department. But the data tells her there’s a more pressing cause for concern: Rising mental health issues and overdoses seem to be taking up more of officers’ time, which has become increasingly scarce as officers have left the force.
She said these trends show the need for more community service officers and liaisons in the department, civilian positions that have more bandwidth to respond to mental health-related calls.
The city is still in the process of filling some of the dozen such positions approved for the department.
Seguino said she thinks the tension in the city results from a national shift in thought about how policing works in the United States. Police departments across the country are having trouble with retaining officers, she said, as communities like Burlington begin to reimagine a less punitive criminal justice system.
Priorities are shifting to more restorative justice programs and building up social services to ensure that problems like generational trauma and poverty are not causing residents to reoffend.
“People are changing what they are asking police officers to do,” Seguino said. “In order to get there, we need to put systems of care in place that are integrated and comprehensive.”
“And we're just not there yet,” she said.
In its letter to Weinberger, the ACLU said it found that the Burlington Department has issued a record number of press releases so far this year.
Murad has published 50 press releases this year about crime in Burlington, according to the ACLU. By comparison, for all of 2020, there were 13 press releases; 2019, 23; and 2018, 18.
The ACLU asserted that the rate of this year’s press releases aim to create a different perception of crime in Burlington than the police department’s data actually shows, which is that crime levels have reached a historic low in the city.
The ACLU wrote that “despite Burlington becoming a safer city over the last several years,” Weinberger and other city officials “have repeatedly connected criminal incidents in Burlington to the legislated cap on armed officers, deploying exaggerated, speculative, and misleading political rhetoric while ignoring BPD’s own data.”
The letter refers to Weinberger’s comments at a meeting in February, when the city council considered increasing the cap on the number of officers. Weinberger described the staffing levels had caused a “crisis” in the police department that would have an impact on crime levels.
At an August council meeting, Weinberger said public safety “is the top responsibility of city government,” but the city may not be able to fulfill it, given the current police staffing levels. Also at that meeting, Murad said “there is an avenue, a throughway here, where we don’t have a police department.”
Weinberger told VTDigger he is “absolutely not” creating misinformation or fear in the city. He said he thinks it’s “very problematic” that information sharing concerns about crime in the city is being labeled as fear mongering.
Murad said the increase of press releases is part of a larger goal to better communicate and connect with members of the community — something the department has been told it needs to improve.
He said he wants to ensure that the department is being transparent about violent crimes when they happen in the city. He thinks he has been clear that these incidents don’t define Burlington’s downtown or the community’s sense of safety.
He also added that he thinks if the community was better informed about officers’ daily interaction with “crime and disorder,” he said “we would have been better off in our discussions last summer.”
“I think some of these discussions have been driven by very partial and incomplete understanding of the roles that police play,” he said.
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