As summer approaches, Burlington police focus patrol on reducing downtown incidents

Mayor Miro Weinberger discusses a plan to increase public safety in downtown Burlington during a press conference Thursday, May 19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — City police have launched a new downtown patrol system, officials said Thursday, in response to concerns about a perceived deterioration in public safety last summer and fall.

Instead of dividing the city in two and assigning three officers to each section, effective May 1, acting police chief Jon Murad’s “Downtown Plan” dedicates two fully sworn police officers and two departmental “community services officers” – staff who can write tickets but cannot use force or carry a weapon – in the city center and most of the Old North End on each quarter of work, the chief said at a press conference on Thursday.

Two other fully sworn “roving officers” will cover the rest of the city, with one assigned to neighborhoods south of downtown and the other to the New North End, according to Murad.

Page 5 of Downtown Public Safety Briefing

The downtown plan is part of a larger “Downtown Public Safety and Activation Plan” rolled out Thursday by Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. In addition to police changes, Weinberger’s plan includes hiring unarmed city personnel to act as a “presence” in Burlington’s public spaces, as well as a barrage of city-sponsored events planned for months. the hottest.

With a reduced police department expected to lose more cops by the end of the summer, Weinberger said, the public safety plan aims to instill a “safe, welcoming and inclusive for all” environment in cultural life and economy of the city. center.

Last year, some business owners and residents denounced what they saw as an alarming increase in disruptive behavior downtown. Along with a string of high-profile muggings, retail store owners have complained of a rise in shoplifting and unruly passers-by, while bar and restaurant managers have hired a private security firm to escort employees to their cars late at night.

The situation — caused in part by the tripling of the number of homeless people during the pandemic — has been made worse by the decline in the number of officers on patrol, Weinberger said.

Acting Police Chief John Murad discusses a plan to increase public safety in downtown Burlington during a press conference Thursday, May 19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Having a public safety presence is important, and we struggled to provide enough of that last summer,” the mayor said. “The plan we presented here today is intended to do just that.”

But with a shortage of new fully sworn officers entering the ranks — and the mandate of a city council resolution directing the department to reinvest police funds in social services — the police department expanded its existing unarmed positions. to fill the void in public safety services.

In addition to the Community Services Officers, Burlington has hired three “Community Support Liaison Officers”. Liaison officers are internal departmental social workers who follow up on incidents, particularly those involving a mental health issue, after sworn officers respond to them.

The city has also bolstered its workforce outside of the police department to promote public safety. Seasonal employees who patrol the city’s beaches, called “yellow shirts” by city staff, will return this summer, and an “urban park warden” program that was announced last fall is taking off. this summer, said Cindi Wight, the city manager. parks, recreation and the waterfront.

As part of the public safety plan, the city is sponsoring more than 100 events this year between May and October in City Hall Park, said Doreen Kraft, manager of Burlington City Arts, the arts promotion division and city ​​events. Last year, the city hired a private security company to patrol the park and crack down on illegal behavior.

“We hope these kinds of events bring the right people to downtown and make it a place where we can really feel like the community we want to be,” Murad said.

Acting Police Chief John Murad, on the podium, and Mayor Miro Weinberger, center, discuss a plan to increase public safety in downtown Burlington during a press conference Thursday, May 19 . Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Police reform efforts

Officials have warned that the plan to reassign officers to the city is just that — a plan, subject to circumstances that interfere with it.

While the largest police presence will be in the city center — where more than 50% of calls for service come from, Murad said — officers are dispatched wherever they are needed.

If fewer than four officers are available for a given shift, the department will likely revert to its “North/South plan”, with one group of officers covering a designated half of the city, or simply assign all officers on duty to the city. in general, Murad said.

The plan only applies to two of the department’s three daily shifts: the “day” shift, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and the “evening” shift, which runs from 4 p.m. 45 at 2:45 p.m.

The department’s “midnight” shift — from 10:15 p.m. to 8:15 a.m. — will maintain the two-officer staffing level it already had, according to Murad.

The department responded to a series of reported shooting incidents (incidents where a gun is fired but the bullet does not necessarily hit a person) during the midnight shift over the past month. Still, Murad said the shift still had the lowest number of service calls.

“But the number of priority service calls is disproportionate,” Murad told reporters.

Absent from the press conference, there was no mention of the department’s planned “social services crisis team”, a team of mental health workers who would respond to personal emergencies. Launching the program — which is based on a similar Eugene, Oregon initiative called “CAHOOTS” — was one of the city council’s directives in its resolution on police reform.

The city has received and is evaluating offers from two organizations to run the program, Murad told VTDigger after the news conference.

“It is very unlikely that (the crisis response team) will be in place before the end of the summer or later,” Murad said in a text.

The lack of visible progress on the crisis team did not sit well with Councilman Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, who attended Thursday’s press conference.

“I am concerned that this is not part of today’s presentation, and I will definitely seek further information from the administration on this,” Magee told VTDigger in a phone interview afterward. the conference.

Murad is due to present the police department’s fiscal year 2023 budget, which covers the period July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023, at Monday night’s finance board meeting.

A Burlington police cruiser is seen outside City Hall Thursday, May 19. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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