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Burlington mayor discusses plan to advance public safety in the city

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (file)

Burlington, Vermont’s mayor has issued a plan to further advance public safety in the city. Its 16 initiatives are based on four priorities: ending and preventing gun violence, improving the downtown climate, making progress on 21st Century policing reforms, and rebuilding the Police Department. Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley and explained the motivation for releasing the plan now.

I mean, I think everyone knows 2022 was an extremely challenging year for public safety in a number of ways. We saw a very troubling amount of gun violence. We have real challenges at times, not all the time but more often than we wanted, with the sort of downtown climate and the downtown being the welcoming, vibrant place that we want it to be, a safe place where everyone feels safe and welcome. And we talked a lot about how important it is to rebuild the police department from the historically low levels of staffing that we're at. And while I think there are a lot, there are a number of very positive signs towards the end of the year I've been very clear for some time that we had a lot more work to do and that we were working on some additional steps and wanting to announce them as early in the year as possible.

The police department recently issued its preliminary year-end report. How linked to that report is the Next Steps for Advancing Burlington Public Safety priorities and the initiatives that you set out in your report?

Well, the chief and I work very closely of course. We meet every week. We talk pretty much every day in one way or another. And so I would certainly say, you know, when I when I mentioned a moment ago that I do feel that there are some signs of progress late in 2022 that is reflected in the report. You can see that we are on track with where we hoped to be when we laid out the rebuilding plan in early 2022. We have a good basically that has unfolded slightly better than we expected it to. And as we look ahead to February and the incoming class of recruits where we needed to be with the biggest class we've had in years headed to the academy in February. The, certainly part of his report, and then another hopeful sign is that we have not had a shooting or someone was injured or worse in three months now after the numerous arrests that the police were successful in carrying out in the late summer and early fall. We are hopeful that that has really had the impact that we hoped it would. That some of the people that were causing repeated problems are now, we're holding them accountable. They're off the street. And that gives us some hopefulness that we're making progress there. At the same time on both those fronts and more we feel there's more work to do. So, you know, with respect to the gunfire I announced that we would be creating a Mayor's Task Force on gun violence to make sure we're fully understanding everything that has happened in the last few years and taking action accordingly. It's going to be both an effort that is being led by Kim Carson, our new Racial, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging director. It's going to involve an internal team that includes the police department and the Community and Economic Development Office and it will include numerous external stakeholders, people from the impacted communities, the youth serving organizations, business community, and more. I'm also pushing very hard again this year for action in Montpelier on gun violence legislation that would have a direct nexus with what we've experienced in Burlington over the last three years, some of which are issues we've been really calling for action for a long time. It's time for Vermont to become and join every other New England state and have some kind of safe storage requirement. I say that has a nexus with what we experienced in the last couple of years because of the last 17 crime guns the police have recovered from crime scenes from investigation six of them were stolen guns. And another example is I've been calling for years, since the voters endorsed this, that we make it illegal to bring guns into bars. And in fact that could well have positively impacted what we experienced because about 25% of our gunfire incidents have been late night bar related gunfire incidents. So, again, that's something that Burlington voters endorsed back in 2014. Numerous other states that have strong cultures of recreation with firearms and subsistence firearms have, states like North Dakota, Alaska have, this is the law there. So to me it's something that that makes sense from a statewide perspective in Vermont. So those are in that priority those are those are what we're calling for now.

Mayor Weinberger in the priority on rebuilding the police department one of the items that stands out is calling for rejection of a Community Control Board for the police department. That is a ballot initiative that is going to be on the Town Meeting Day ballot. Why is it important to be rejected from your perspective?

This is essentially the same proposal, some modest differences. But it's essentially the same proposal that I vetoed when the council passed it in late 2020. And the reason I passed it then, ah I vetoed it then, is not because I oppose proper oversight of the police department. I've long championed greater involvement of our Police Commission and I actually was the first one to call for a charter change to alter what I think is sort of an issue in our charter where the chief is given sort of near absolute power over discipline issues that I think should be modernized. The problem with this specific proposal is...there are many problems, frankly, and I'll go through them. But the reason it's so important is I do believe that if this is passed by voters, and certainly if it becomes law which I think is very unlikely, I don't think the governor would let it become law. But even if it just passes at the ballot box I think it's going to undo a lot of the progress that we're starting to make rebuilding the police department. You know, people should be clear that this is not a way that community is defined in this charter change actually excludes from the community anyone with a law enforcement background, either current law enforcement or historic ones. I think, arguably, if you were going to create some kind of citizen oversight board that's the most important background for someone to have. But this sort of turns it on its head and says that that is disqualifying. And that's offensive. It's offensive to me. It's offensive to someone who believes that law enforcement is important profession that we need to respect. It's certainly offensive to the people who serve and put their lives on the line every day for this community. It also completely removes the chief from any role in discipline which I think really fundamentally changes the chief's role and makes it very hard for a chief to be successful. And more. I mean it's a way too detailed charter change. This is not the way we do charter changes. It is extremely prescriptive. Surely there are many things that are wrong in the way it's been written up and to change them we would have to go through another time-consuming charter change exercise in the future. So this is very unfortunate that this is back. The only good thing about it, Pat, from my perspective is that it gives the people of Burlington an opportunity to show that they really do value the police department and understand that we need to support our police department and they can do that by rejecting this on Town Meeting Day. And I'm going to be very vocal between now and Town Meeting Day on this issue. I think it's really, it's at some level, I think it's not too much to say that is an existential issue for the police department. We're just now starting to rebuild it. If this charter change, which would undermine that rebuilding effort passes, I think we're going to be back in a very tenuous situation with a real question as to whether we can consistently properly police this community. That's not where I want to get back to.

Mayor, you mentioned the state legislature. You're asking them for some action to be able to complete this plan. But what actions by the Burlington City Council will be needed for the plan to be successful?

So, you know, there's a lot in this plan. We've been working on it for months and many of the 16 actions do require partnership approval by the council. So, to name a couple more that we haven't talked about yet, one that I'm really excited about is the creation of a new assistant director level position. A new assistant director at the police department that is a civilian. We don't have anything like that right now. The purpose of this job would be someone to oversee all the alternative public safety resources that we've created in recent years. We have dramatically expanded the number of social workers that we have working at the police department. We are about to stand up a new crisis response team that involves working with a local mental health nonprofit. We have partnerships with Howard Center nonprofit for the street outreach team and quite a bit more. We have new urban park rangers. This is a very positive development that we've added all these additional resources. It's new and it requires coordination, planning, innovation, and we need another senior person at the police department to get the most out of these new programs. I would like the city council to, I hope, endorse the position that we were just talking about, the rejection of the Community Control Board. I'm talking to counselors about that. There's another new position within the police department that I think we need to create: a project manager position to help the chief implement the many 21st Century Policing reforms that we're committed to and that were identified in the CNA report process you may remember from a few months back. And I would also appreciate the council endorsing the legislative agenda that we've been talking about with respect to gun violence and respect to the property crimes, calling for an update to modernizing of the shoplifting laws, which I think is another area that needs to be done. We're seeing downtown merchants really hurt badly by just the dramatic increase in shoplifting that we've experienced since the pandemic. So there's even more but those are some of the highlights.

The mayor’s next steps plan to advance public safety also call for increased partnerships with Vermont State Police and other Chittenden County law enforcement agencies and implementing a Deferred Retirement Option Plan for eligible officers while the department is rebuilt.

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