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Burlington officials outline new downtown public safety plan

Burlington Acting Police Chief Jon Murad (file)
Pat Bradley
Burlington Acting Police Chief Jon Murad (file)

Burlington, Vermont’s mayor and police chief are outlining a new plan to address public safety concerns in the center city area.

Burlington officials have unveiled what they call the Downtown Public Safety and Activation Plan. It combines a new police deployment scheme with recreational activity. Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger says the downtown area, particularly the Church Street Marketplace, not only faced a loss of business from the pandemic but it has also seen an increase in crime.

“Too often last summer we experienced disruptive, intimidating and even dangerous incidents in City Hall Park and on the Marketplace. With the declining number of officers the city struggled to maintain a public safety presence in our downtown. And even while we continued to enjoy a large number of visitors to our downtown too many of those visitors and often female employees of downtown businesses reported that they felt unsafe.”

Mayor Weinberger says continuing criminal incidents are unacceptable. The new plan is intended to enhance public safety and protect the downtown by redeploying police officers and expanding other public safety resources such as Community Service Officers and Community Service Liaisons. It also expands a street outreach team and creates an urban park ranger team.

Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said the department now has only four officers per shift to cover the entire city. Murad says the plan assigns two of them to the downtown core.

“Which is where history tells us more than 50 percent of our calls for service or our overall incidents occur in this area. This is predicated on four officers being available for that shift. The other issue is what is our call volume going to be? This past weekend we had 58 incidents that included shootings, included stabbings, included domestic assaults. If we have periods like that, then the ability for all these officers actually to be on the Marketplace or actually even to be patrolling the north or the south is tremendously limited. We are trying to do as best we can with what we’ve got.”

The police department is short staffed in part because the Burlington City Council voted in June 2020 to reduce the number of uniformed police officers from 105 to 74, including those patrolling at the Burlington International Airport. The council partially reversed that decision in October 2021 and increased the cap to 79 after an independent consultant recommended officer staffing should be between 77 and 80.

Murad says it will take time to restore staffing levels, noting there are now 57 compared to last year’s roster of 80 patrol officers.

“What we’re facing is a challenge that has been something facing the entire state and in fact the entire country and the profession of policing around the United States. There are not a lot of folks who are trying to come into this profession right now. We have brought aboard a total of three people since the decision was made by the Council to allow us to hire again. Of those one did not complete, one is in the academy and one is in his field training on the streets right now.”

Burlington officials says security is enhanced for events, with 130 planned in the downtown area this summer. Director of Economic Recovery and the Church Street Marketplace Kara Alnasrawi:

“When we program our public spaces it creates a sense of fun, order, security and it’s welcoming to everyone.”

Acting Chief Murad will present his budget proposal, which includes initiatives to recruit and retain officers, to the city council Monday.

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