Burlington Mayor Offers Proposal To Add Social Workers To Police Department | WAMC

Burlington Mayor Offers Proposal To Add Social Workers To Police Department

Sep 11, 2020

Protesters in Burlington have been calling for the firing of police officers involved in use of force incidents and larger police reforms. The Burlington City Council’s Public Safety Committee and the Police Commission held a joint meeting Thursday evening to discuss some potential initiatives.

In late June the Burlington City Council formed a joint committee between the council’s Public Safety Committee and the Police Commission. Among its tasks is an operational and functional assessment of the city police department.  
For nearly three weeks an encampment has been set up in Battery Park adjacent to the Police Department. The protesters’ demands that three officers be fired are being complicated by laws that hold the cases are closed and city leaders cannot intervene.  Sonia McGluck was among those who called to urge committee members to find ways to re-envision policing in the city.  “The protesters are advocating for change and I understand you all necessarily don’t have the power in this moment to make that change. But what is being asked is a re-imagining outside of what we currently have for policing and the policing system that we have right now is racist and harmful to BIPOC in Vermont. So as we’re imagining this to think outside of the frame that we have right now because the frame that we have right now isn’t working. So to create something that will be really inclusive and actually create safety for everyone in this community.”

Mayor Miro Weinberger noted there is an urgency in the city to act on public safety issues. He offered a proposal to the committee that he hopes can be implemented quickly.  “We would create two community affairs liaisons. These would be non-sworn employees with backgrounds in social work. I really do see a number of pressing issues that having this kind of additional capacity within the department would immediately help us with. One with the homeless. Two just generally responding to mental health crises and mental health calls with a different capacity than sending a sworn officer to respond or having a sworn officer taking the lead. And then finally we know that most people who end up dying of opioid overdoses have police contacts at some point. So we really think this could be a meaningful strategy.”

There is a social worker assigned to the Burlington Police Department but Acting Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad says there is a need for additional positions, which he would like to see more field-oriented.  "Going out at times for people who are houseless, people are in mental health crisis, people who are or have suffered substance abuse issues particularly post-overdose. But also addresses the kinds of problems that often take up office time with regard to Type 1 calls. Many of you as members of the Police Commission and the City Council have been receiving emails from a gentleman who is unhappy with his neighbors and noise complaints and the responses that we do or don’t provide. We need additional resources to take on other people who are also calling about similar kinds of things that aren’t police matters, but they aren’t necessarily street outreach matters and they need a level of interaction in order not to metastasize into worse problems.”

Central District Progressive Perri Freeman found the idea intriguing.  “I think having a mental health service support and capacity that the city takes on makes sense to me. To me like public safety there’s an aspect that’s like public care and then there’s like public responders and that’s why I was curious about are these folks coming in when we’re responding and how much prevention are we doing? And I think that can be fleshed out and off the cuff I’m excited about this.”

The initiative to add two social workers to the Burlington Police Department would be funded from a quarter-million dollar Police Transformation Fund that was created in the city’s 2021 budget.