A letter signed by 17 Burlington restaurants is urging city officials to provide employees of Church Street businesses with greater protections against sexual harassment and physical assault.

“Downtown employees make Burlington possible, yet they do not feel safe,” the letter said. “They stock the shelves, sell the shirts, and cook the food. Can the city please step up and offer them a safer experience?”

Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said the threat of violence led to the creation of a Safety Escort Program. For eight weeks over the summer, the program helped employees who felt unsafe walk to their homes or cars safely. Devine says she is looking to expand it.

“We’re putting together a proposal now. The idea would be people could call for a buddy to walk to home. There would be a security presence on the street to call BPD, if necessary. Maybe deescalate situations and provide any support for people who are visiting downtown,” she said.

She is asking for financial assistance from private donors and the city to make the program, which operates from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., available earlier in the day.

“Because this is such a mission-critical item, we need to raise money quickly and one of the ways you can do that is through private donations,” Devine said.

Weinberger said part of the problem is the city’s understaffed police department. 

“I’ve been calling for a department between 85-90 officers for over a year,” said Mayor Weinberger. “The trouble that we’re in right now is as a result of the council’s decision a year ago to change decades of policies and drop the size of our police department by 30 percent.”

Weinberger says a recently completed Functional and Operational Assessment of the department supports the need for more police officers. He says there are currently 74 officers, including eight assigned to Burlington International Airport.

Weinberger said he plans to ask City Council to raise the force level at the department to 88 officers.

“We’re seeing, at times, serious crimes at levels that is very different than what we’ve experienced in the past, which is not something Burlingtonians should expect and have to endure,” said Weinberger.

Representatives of businesses that signed the letter were not available for comment Monday. Tierney Munger, co-owner of Muddy Waters Café in downtown Burlington, says while her staff hasn’t felt unsafe, the city should work to address some of the broader issues.

“I think it leads to a much bigger conversation about the houseless population and how we can support people who don’t have consistent housing, addiction, people who struggle so that we can make it safer for everyone,” said Munger.