This Liberal City Defunded the Police. Now It’s Paying Cops to Stay.
Here’s what happened when an overwhelmingly white city actually cut cops—and residents had second thoughts.
After George Floyd was murdered, Kelly Devine felt called to do something. Or at least be open to the idea.
“There was sympathy for the activist who was talking about the question of racial justice and how we, potentially, address it as a community,” Devine, the longtime executive director of the Burlington, Vermont, business association, told The Daily Beast.
By late June 2020, a resolution was drawn up by the City Council to address racial disparities in police interactions, declare racism a citywide crisis, and create more opportunities for residents of color. To fund the goals, the city set a new cap for the number of officers in the department at 74—30 percent lower than the previous one—and aimed to repurpose the money saved from the trim and hiring freeze for alternative responses to 911 calls, like unarmed social workers.
Devine said she was unsure about the plan and what would happen as a result. But she did not speak out against it because—like most everyone else in the historically left-leaning city—she said she wanted to “do something” about police racism.
But her opinion has changed—and she’s not alone.
In the 14 months since, the Burlington Police Department has dropped from around 90 officers, when the resolution was passed, to under 70 today. This is largely thanks, officials say, to cops leaving for higher-paying jobs in other departments or retiring earlier than expected. Devine, who said she’s spoken to many disaffected cops herself, suggested some left town because of increased scrutiny on the department even as they faced greater workloads.
“Most of it was, ‘I gotta get out of here,’” she told The Daily Beast.
In the midst of the departures, city leaders who championed the resolution say, the police chief, city mayor, and police union leaders—none of whom were hot on cutting funds in the first place—waged a misinformation campaign to drive up fears about crime. Along the way, a city that seemed like a potentially potent laboratory for radically overhauling policing has seen its reform project ground to a virtual halt.
“It has led to a lot of backlash and outcry in the community for more police,” Jack Hanson, a progressive City Council member in Burlington, told The Daily Beast.
Since the summer of 2020, cities like Minneapolis have backtracked from calls to abolish their police departments. Other cities, like Atlanta, which entertained the idea of moving $70 million away from its police, have reversed course and poured more funds into their departments, in that case greenlighting a state-of-the-art training center.
For her part, Devine told The Daily Beast, she’s convinced increased local concern about safety and crime in the normally tranquil oasis has a basis in reality, and specifically the city’s decision to defund the police.
“Why do people feel less safe downtown? I would say for certain the defunding of the police department is a contributing factor,” Devine said.
FBI numbers do show that murders spiked nationally in a big way over the past year. But locals who championed the reforms in Burlington are confident the numbers are on their side, even as they watch the changing national tide with trepidation.
“Very few communities seem to have stayed the course, even just a year out,” Hanson said. “Last year was this big reckoning point where people said, ‘Our systems are completely unsafe for Black people in this country, and always have been, and we need to reckon with that.’”
Despite this, the city has taken a step back on its lofty goals, with the Council voting unanimously on Monday to give nearly $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to the police department and effectively write each remaining officer a $10,000 check to stay on the job.
Hanson admitted the funds were needed to appease residents who reported feeling less safe, and help improve morale at the department. But he pushed back on the idea of it being a retreat. “We’re not backing away from those changes,” he said. “At the same time, our goal isn’t to just see the department collapse and create this really challenging situation.”
Hanson said the discussion on reforms that everyone was seemingly once behind in the city had stalled thanks to the efforts of city leaders who’ve always opposed the defunding plan.
“They’ve consistently and aggressively pushed this narrative of increasing crime, and the city is less safe,” Hanson said of the mayor, police chief, and union.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Weinberger pushed back against the accusation in a statement to The Daily Beast. She said that although the mayor did not support any plans that would include less than 80 armed officers in the department, he has been supportive of police reform measures in the city since before George Floyd’s death. “The Administration rejects any charge of ‘fear mongering’,” the spokeswoman said.
The Burlington Police Department and acting Chief Jon Murad did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday the Burlington Police Officers’ Association doubled down on criticism of the move to defund the police department, saying in a statement that it created an “unmanageable and un-survivable retention crisis.” The union also said a “real” retention plan to keep officers in the city would be “much more complicated than writing a check.”
In August, the union went so far as to accuse the City Council of crafting plans in 2020 with no “critical examination” of the consequences, and said evidence of the “failed experiment” was evident in the “rash of violent crime” in the city and the number of officers skipping town.
Hanson and other leaders said rhetoric like this has kept discussion about the number of officers in the city front and center, sidelining their larger reform project.
The union did not respond to a request for comment.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Zoraya Hightower, a Black City Council member who drove a lot of the discussion around reimagining the police department, expressed concern that positions for unarmed officers who focused on community needs that had been funded thanks to the June 2020 vote had yet to be filled. “We’ve been talking about alternatives for so long,” she said, “and we keep coming back to the sworn officer count.”
At the meeting, Mayor Weinberger and acting Chief Murad said that while progress was being made slowly on other efforts, they would all fail if there weren’t a well-equipped police force to support them and train those responsible for them.
“I think it is clear that there is consensus around these alternative resources, and we are trying to move on them,” said Weinberger. “There is no scenario where we don’t also need a significant number of sworn officers for public safety.”
Murad said the department was poised to lose another 10 officers come 2022, and suggested their service would only continue to suffer as a result. “We are losing officers rapidly at a rate that, frankly, does begin to compromise what we can do,” he said. “We already cannot provide the services that we have in the past.”
Despite the claims of a city nearing crisis, some local advocates say the reality is a lot less terrifying.
In a letter to Mayor Weinberger this month, Vermont ACLU General Counsel Jay Diaz labeled officials’ focus on an alleged rise in crime a “campaign of misinformation… designed to instill fear, direct more funding to BPD, and undermine the progress the city has made up to this point.”
Diaz told The Daily Beast officials were blowing crime stats out of proportion, deliberately misleading residents about a rise in crime, and using an increased output of inflammatory press releases to overstate violent incidents in the city—as well as the need for more officers.
According to an analysis by the ACLU, police incidents between the months of January and August have been in a steady decline since 2016—including an 18 percent reduction in overall incidents between 2020 and 2021. Although the number of violent crimes from the same stretch of months was significantly lower in 2021 than in 2016, the report found, the number of violent offenses did show a slight uptick in the past year, from 339 incidents in 2020 to 359 in 2021.
Diaz told The Daily Beast he believed the numbers did not prove anything as grave as what the police department and mayor might like. A more sober look at issues, he said, would involve the city’s rise in mental-health needs and overdoses and lead to more urgency in deploying the resources the reform vote was supposed to marshal.
He also said it was noticeable that the mayor and police chief were ignoring real issues like the fact that Black people accounted for less than 6 percent of the population even as they have been overrepresented in arrests and use of police force. In 2020, Black residents accounted for 31 percent of all use-of-force incidents, according to department data. So far in 2021, that percentage hasn’t changed.
“There’s just an element of institutional backlash here that we can’t deny,” Diaz told The Daily Beast. “A predictable institutional backlash.”
In his letter, Diaz pointed to past city council meetings where Mayor Weinberger called the staffing issue a “crisis” and a “grave situation” while also claiming an increase in shooting incidents. Diaz said Murad’s statements in the past had called for more police resources to “staunch the bleeding” of crime.
Those statements, Diaz told The Daily Beast, were aided by double the number of police press releases on crime incidents in the city–even though overall crime hadn’t shot up like in other cities.
In an Aug. 21 release about reported gunshots without a victim, Murad pointed to “troubling increases” in gun violence nationwide, even as he acknowledged Burlington’s shootings had not resulted in anyone being shot or killed. “But that will not last. When guns are fired in crowded cities, people will eventually get hurt. What’s more, people are already being harmed by the sense of uncertainty and diminished safety that accompanies these incidents.”
In another release that month about a bullet hole found in an elementary school window, Murad noted that between 2012 and 2019, the average number of gunfire incidents in the city was two, but that in 2020, there were a dozen incidents, and 10 by August.
Weinberger commended the officers involved in looking into “yet another gunfire incident” in a statement included in the same release. “This high rate of gunfire incidents, that is such a significant departure from our norm, is unacceptable,” he said. “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.”
Despite the reported increase in shooting incidents, Diaz said the narrative being pushed about the city being overcome with crime is misleading when you look at overall crime stats for the year.
“The numbers are way down,” he said. “It’s hard to understand why a mayor and a police chief would not be talking about the great success they’re having as opposed to sounding alarm bells.”
For his part, the mayor previously suggested Diaz was missing a recent trend in a more ominous direction.
In statement responding to the letter, Weinberger said Diaz’s analysis was “flawed” and that it dismissed the significance of recent gunfire incidents. He said Diaz failed to “understand that there is a direct relationship between police investment and violent crime.”
Devine, of the Burlington Business Association, conceded that fatal shootings and stabbings might not be commonplace in Burlington. But she said she’s heard from business owners and residents about concerns over more public intoxication, intimidation, and property crimes that might otherwise go unnoticed.
In other words, so-called “quality of life” offenses that are a hallmark of broken windows policing, a frequent target of police reformers for decades.
“They’re not violent crimes, they’re not people getting killed in the streets. That’s not what’s going on,” she said, adding that there seems to be a “permissiveness” of dysfunction that is scary to some. “It feels like the bar for what’s acceptable behavior has really changed.”
Devine added that Monday’s vote to inject money back into the department was the “first sign that I’ve seen that there is an acknowledgement that there were unintended consequences of this fairly swift decision, and that we need to at least shore up our security forces to get through the transition to whatever other kind of system we’re going to create.”
Hanson, the City Council member, believes it is important to get the department ranks back to the 74 number they set last summer. And while he acknowledged that some of the changes the city and residents are demanding don’t make life easier for cops, he suggested the way officers have looked at the changes have been influenced by rogue leadership.
Murad took over as acting chief in early 2020, after the previous chief, Brandon del Pozo, resigned upon admitting to creating an anonymous Twitter account he used to go after a fierce critic of the department, as The New York Times reported. Hanson said there is an active effort to replace him with someone who is better able to embrace the changes the city is trying to make.
He added that Chief Murad’s tone around the decrease in officers and defunding hasn’t helped any. “This very negative tone of, ‘They’re out to get us’,” as Hanson described it. “It’s been setting a very resistant tone, a very antagonistic tone.”
Nonetheless, he said, Monday’s vote was meant to show the rank and file that the city doesn’t want to alienate them.
“We’re trying to show them that our goal isn’t to totally leave them high and dry. We do want to support them and we also want to continue ahead with this transition,” he said. “That’s the line that we’re trying to walk.”