Burlington, VT – The same progressive Vermont city that defunded its police budget by 30 percent in 2020 is regretting the move and recently voted to give $10,000 bonuses to the officers they have left to keep them from quitting.
“Good policing is expensive,” Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad told NBC News.
Chief Murad explained reforming the police department in a city doesn’t happen by “merely saying, ‘We’re just not going to have police anymore.’”
“I think that that has ultimately proven to be a grand experiment on a national and local level that’s gone awry,” the police chief said.
The Burlington City Council, in response to the outcry for defunding police that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police, voted in June of 2020 to cut 30 percent of its city’s police force by attrition, NBC News reported.
“We had all these issues leading up to the pandemic and leading up to the murder of George Floyd,” Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, who sponsored the bill that defunded the Burlington police, explained. “For us, it wasn’t just a national problem. It was a problem here at home.”
Hightower, who had been elected just three months earlier, proposed a resolution called Racial Justice Through Economic and Criminal Justice on June 25, 2020, the one-month anniversary of Floyd’s death, NBC News reported.
Her resolution included three demands made by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.
It cut police by 29.5 percent and decreased the number of officers on the police force from 105 to 74, using attrition, NBC News reported.
Hightower’s bill also eliminated school resource officers, called for diverting police funding to social and racial justice initiatives, and created a committee to review “how to build a healthy and safe community.”
Only three members of the city council voted against the measure and it passed quickly five days later, NBC News reported.
It didn’t take long for everyone – residents and elected officials alike – to realize that defunding their police department had been a really big mistake.
First, an extraordinary number of officers retired or resigned from the department, dropping the size of the force far below what Hightower had intended, NBC News reported.
The police chief said the department went from 95 active-duty officers to about 64 officers.
“The exit interviews have been pretty clear that it was about a lack of support in a political sense,” Chief Murad said. “And a sense of saying: ‘This is not how I want to serve anymore. I don’t feel valued.’”
He said there are only five officers available to cover the overnight shift and overtime costs have skyrocketed, NBC News reported.
Chief Murad said the lawmakers didn’t account for the fact it takes 14 months to get a new police cadet out on patrol, and that only a few of hundreds of applicants actually made it through the police academy.
The officer shortage has forced the department to eliminate some specialized positions, including the emergency response officer who managed police responses to complex crises, according to NBC News.
The department also had to do away with a street crime team that investigated robberies and drug activity and began prioritizing 911 calls by seriousness.
As a result, police response to quality of life and non-violent crimes was stymied and those crimes surged, NBC News reported.
“It’s easier to break things than it is to fix them,” Murad said.
Mental health providers have complained that the shortage of officers has placed mentally-ill people in more jeopardy on the street, NBC News reported.
Business owners said their employees were afraid to work in the evenings with so few officers on the streets.
After a year-and-a-half of enduring the new defunded police structure, everybody has admitted that defunding the police failed as a strategy for improving the community, including the woman that initially proposed it, NBC News reported.
“We’re in a situation that I think nobody wanted us to get to,” Hightower admitted.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who never supported defunding the police, said his city is a mess, NBC News reported.
“There’s a lot of damage that has been done in the last 16 months,” Weinberger said.
The mayor asked the city council to raise the officer cap to 84 in January and the councilors responded by authorizing the police department to hire 10 unarmed, non-sworn community service officers and three social workers, NBC News reported.
But none of that was ever implemented.
”We can’t defund without refunding. The whole point is to fund something else,” Hightower told NBC News. “And we didn’t do anything for a very long time.”
The city hired an independent firm to conduct an analysis of the Burlington Police Department, NBC News reported.
The report was released in September and concluded that the department needed a better internal investigation process.
The analysis also concluded that the police force’s community engagement and outreach were under-resourced and that the department lacked sufficient training in mental health and de-escalation, according to NBC News.
Things became so dire that in October, the city council voted to raise the number of officers to 79 and begin offering $10,000 bonuses to current officers to keep them from leaving the department.
Hightower has recognized that the cuts to policing in the city were implemented too quickly, NBC News reported.
“I think that there’s an acknowledgment that these cuts went too fast for the pace of the alternatives,” she said.
When asked if she wished she could go back and do it differently, Hightower replied, “If wishes were fishes, yeah, of course.”