BURLINGTON, Vt. – City Council approved cutting the number of uniformed officers with the Burlington Police Department by 30 percent as part of a series of police reforms debated deep into the evening before final passage early Tuesday.
In a 9-3 vote, the council moved to cut the department’s uniformed officer capacity from 105 to 74. The council intends to use the savings to pay for various social and economic justice initiatives.
The council’s action was a challenge to Mayor Miro Weinberger’s budget, which proposes a more modest 12-officer cut in the force. Earlier Tuesday, Weinberger called the steeper cuts — which advocates have aggressively lobbied for — “dangerous,” and he defended his budget.
“I really think this notion put out here that crime and policing are not related is one that is quite breathtaking and concerning, I don’t agree with it,” the mayor said.
The reforms approved also require that the Burlington School District and Burlington Police Department terminate agreements that authorize full-time School Resource Officers by spring 2021. They also give the citizen-led Burlington Police Commission access to all complaints about officers, as well as a voice in the disciplinary process, including decisions surrounding use of force.
Zoraya Hightower, a recently-elected Progressive councilor and key sponsor of the reform resolution, credited the members of the community and the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance for bringing the issue to the top of the council’s agenda
“They localized this movement, and the hundreds and hundreds of people who called in,” Hightower said. “I think a lot of the sponsors, myself included, would not have been as brave as we should’ve been if that hadn’t happened, so I’m really grateful those voices called in and gave us the courage.”
Opponents of the cuts said they support the broader message the department cuts send. But Councilor Ali Dieng (I) said he remained concerned that there wasn’t more debate on the 30 percent reduction in the force.
“It doesn’t bring justice, but it is definitely bringing danger to the safety of the residents of the city, to the tourists, to the businesses, to people who will need help from the police,” said. “Times have changed, and change does not come overnight.”
Councilor Chip Mason (D) echoed Dieng.
“I fear the cuts are too deep, there’s been no process, and I’m concerned about the impact on public safety,” Mason said. “I appreciate that’s a small piece of a much larger resolution, but I also respect the majority of this council was not willing to move forward with that process.”
During debate, Councilor Brian Pine (P) said city government has “taken its foot off the gas” for too long when it comes to racial justice efforts.
“I think today what we’re trying to grapple with as a community is how do we take decisive action that will reverse centuries of harm and oppression and have a conversation that brings as many people along as possible,” Pine said. “I really feel strongly that we have an incredible opportunity, but we have a huge challenge in front of us.”
The discussion on police reforms dominated Monday’s meeting, forcing action on the full 2021 city budget to be tabled until Tuesday.