BURLINGTON, VT — One evening in June 2020, a City Council budget meeting in this college town near the Canadian border stretched past midnight after hundreds of locals had logged on to Zoom to speak. Over nine hours, bleary-eyed councilors heard a message that had rippled across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Enough performing,” said one citizen. “Defund the Burlington police department.”
The council would ultimately pass a resolution that upended the way policing was done in the city.
Other cities with similar profiles — majority white college towns — “defunded” their police. Norman, Oklahoma, diverted 4 percent of the police budget to community services. Northampton, Massachusetts, cut 10 percent from the police budget.
Burlington, however, decided to slash almost 30 percent of its police force by attrition. Since then, city leaders have been forced to reckon with the unintended consequences of that decision, including problems with public safety and quality of life, according to police and residents.
Almost a year and a half later, no one, it seems, is happy. Not even the councilor who proposed the resolution.
“We’re in a situation that I think nobody wanted us to get to,” said Councilor Zoraya Hightower, a member of the locally dominant Progressive Party.
The mayor, who didn’t support cutting the force, agrees.
“There’s a lot of damage that has been done in the last 16 months,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat.
‘A problem here at home’
Burlington, a city of some 44,000 nestled on the shore of Lake Champlain, is the home of the University of Vermont and a beacon of progressive politics. It’s where Sen. Bernie Sanders launched his political career, and City Council divisions are not between Republicans and Democrats, but Democrats and Progressives.
Historically, the city’s property crime rate has been slightly higher than the national average, but the violent crime rate has been lower. The overall number of incidents, meaning calls that bring a police response, has decreased each year since 2016 and the number of high-priority incidents, including violent crimes, makes up less than 10 percent of the total. Prior to defunding and Covid, officers spent a little over half their time on quality-of-life issues such as noise complaints and intoxication.
By many measures, Burlington is also home to one of the nation’s most forward-thinking police departments. It’s long prioritized community policing and received praise for its approach to the opioid crisis. Its police chiefs implemented reforms ahead of the curve, from mandating body-worn cameras to cutting ties with a federal program that gives military equipment to police departments. About 74 percent of its current force holds bachelor’s or more advanced degrees — about twice the national average, per a 2017 study.
Despite the department’s progressive bona fides, by 2019 it had come under increasing scrutiny from activists after a series of controversies — including use of force incidents involving Black men in a city that is less than six percent black.
In September 2018, a Burlington police officer responded to a reported altercation at a bar. Body camera footage shows the officer approach the suspect, a Black man named Jeremie Meli, and immediately knock him to the ground. Meli hits his head on a brick wall and appears to lose consciousness.
Meli and his family are suing the city and the police department. Meli’s attorney declined to comment. An investigation by independent investigators deemed the officer’s actions unnecessary and he received internal discipline.
For Councilor Ali Dieng, a Black man and a political independent, the incident put race into focus.
“If we’re saying there is not racism in policing, this was one example, one clear example,” said Dieng.
Since 2015, Blacks who are arrested in Burlington have been slightly more likely to be subjected to use of force. A recent study of Vermont traffic stops shows that from 2014 to 2019, Black drivers were 3.6 times more likely to be searched than white drivers.
Acting Police Chief Jon Murad agrees the data is troubling. “There are real racial disparities in policing and even in our numbers here in Burlington,” he said.
Burlington has made progress in the disparity in traffic stops in recent years. The change was caused, in part, by marijuana legalization, which eliminated some stops, but also by department guidance discouraging certain discretionary stops. Beginning in 2016 searches have decreased overall, and warning rates for white and Black drivers with a valid license have been roughly equal.
“While Burlington PD has been an innovator in some areas it has really dropped the ball in several others,” said Jay Diaz, an attorney with the Vermont ACLU. “Namely, disproportionate use of force with people of color and generally how it operates when it comes to working with young people with disabilities.”
In 2016, Burlington police officers fatally shot a man in the midst of a mental health crisis. In 2019, a police officer was punched by a man in crisis and struck back, punching him in the face. The man subsequently died.
“The police are not the best social service providers and they would be the first to say so,” said Democratic Councilor Joan Shannon.
‘Like pulling something out of a hat’
George Floyd died under the knee of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020.
In Burlington, the reaction was swift. Protestors marched through the city and rallied outside the police department, demanding defunding and termination of officers involved in past use-of-force incidents.
“We had all these issues leading up to the pandemic, and leading up to the murder of George Floyd,” said Hightower, who is the first Black woman to serve on the Burlington City Council. “For us, it wasn’t just a national problem. It was a problem here at home.”
On the one-month anniversary of Floyd’s death, Hightower proposed a resolution called Racial Justice Through Economic and Criminal Justice.
She had been elected to the City Council just three months earlier. Her victory helped the Progressive Party achieve a plurality on the council, with six of 12 seats.
Several aspects of the resolution Hightower proposed were written not by her, but by an activist group called the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.
The Alliance’s executive director, Mark Hughes, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Requests to current board members were not returned.
On June 12, 2020, the Alliance had published a letter to the City Council on its website, demanding an apology and reparations for Burlington’s role in chattel slavery, and a restructuring of public safety, including, among other items, an immediate 30 percent reduction in police officers.
Hightower’s resolution included three of the Alliance’s seven suggestions. It also included a modified version of the 30 percent reduction, stating that a decrease from 105 to 74 officers, or a cut of 29.5 percent, should happen through attrition instead of immediately. Officers would be allowed to leave on their own accord over an unspecified period of time.
The resolution also ended the school resource officer program and called for the diversion of police funding to social and racial justice initiatives. It said that money saved should be spent on alternative means of providing public safety. It also directed the creation of a committee that would review “how to build a healthy and safe community and what institutions we need to reach that goal,” including an inquiry into the police department.
Councilor Dieng proposed an amendment to create a task force to study the appropriate number of police officers. Councilor Shannon supported the amendment. It did not pass.
Jane Stromberg, another newly elected Progressive Party councilor and a recent University of Vermont graduate, proposed an amendment cutting the department even more, to 63 officers by 2023. It did not pass.
Hightower’s resolution was voted on and approved on June 30, just five days after it was proposed.
The vote was 9 to 3, with all nine yes votes acting as cosponsors of the resolution. Both Shannon and Dieng voted against it.
For Shannon, the self-described “right-wing” of the council, it felt like “pulling something out of a hat.”
“We made this decision with no public process,” she added. “Nothing was sent to committee for discussion. No effort was made to reach out to groups beyond the activists.”
Though Dieng wanted police reform, he said he wanted it done with care.
“Let’s not be reactive,” Dieng said. “Let’s be proactive.”
“I remember telling the people back then that if we do it this way, we will regret it.”
‘We’re human beings’
The unintended consequences appeared quickly. Slashing the police force through attrition, a process that some councilors assumed would take years, instead took months.
Police officers began to leave in droves. Before defunding, Burlington averaged about 95-some effective, or active-duty, police officers. Today the department hovers around 64. There are often only five available to patrol at night, according to Chief Murad. Overtime costs have soared.
“The exit interviews have been pretty clear that it was about a lack of support in a political sense,” Murad said. “And a sense of saying, ‘This is not how I want to serve anymore. I don’t feel valued.’”
One of those officers, Greg, worked at the department for nearly 10 years and had just been promoted to detective when he resigned nearly a year after the resolution passed. He had earned a master’s degree in counseling. NBC News agreed to withhold his name for privacy.
Burlington was his home, he said, and law enforcement a lifetime career.
After defunding, Greg said many officers felt blindsided and that changes had been made without input from police officers themselves. It started to feel like the department had become a flashpoint for all of Burlington’s ills. Protestors gathered outside headquarters. Officers’ cars were keyed, and tires slashed. Greg stopped parking his in the department lot.
“We’re human beings,” he said. “I would say right after the defund moment, it felt like a very violent place to have to go to work.”
As the department grappled with its uncertain future, Greg felt his career prospects dim. He decided he wanted out.
He left Vermont and began pursuing a degree in respiratory therapy. Today, he works part-time as a mobile crisis responder for a health provider, helping individuals facing mental health crises.
“Because of my police experience, and because of my advanced education in psychology and related fields, I’m actually going to wind up directly doing the work that Burlington said they wanted from their officers,” he said.
Chief Murad said it could take years to replace the officers he’s lost, like Greg. It takes about 14 months to hire, train and swear in an officer. Only a few out of hundreds of applicants make it through the police academy.
Fewer officers forced the department to remove some specialized positions, including an emergency response officer who managed police responses to complex crises. It removed a street crime team that investigates robberies and drug activity. Emergency calls became prioritized by seriousness, meaning it often took police longer to respond to quality-of-life complaints and nonviolent crimes.
“It’s easier to break things than it is to fix them,” Murad said.
‘A keg party’
It’s hard to tell if crime has risen in Burlington as officers have left the force, in part because there are no solid numbers yet. The best year-to-year comparisons would come from FBI data — which won’t be available until next year.
For now, the Burlington Police Department has incident data for 2021.
The data shows that the total number of incidents fell 11 percent in the first 11 months of 2021 versus the same period last year.
Certain types of incidents did increase, however, including burglary, vehicle thefts and mental health issues and overdoses.
It was on Church Street, Burlington’s busy downtown strip, where many of those incidents and the possible impact of defunding seemed most visible.
Sharing the street with other residents and tourists are individuals struggling with housing instability, mental health and substance abuse — all issues aggravated by the pandemic.
Since the police force shrank, however, officers have had to spend a greater percentage of their time on higher priority issues and less on quality of life.
For 20 years, an outreach team from The Howard Center, a mental health provider, has helped connect people to social service programs and de-escalate conflict.
Tammy Boudah, who’s been on the Howard Center team for 18 years and led it for the past four, said the pandemic and defunding changed the energy downtown. Boudah said she and her colleagues increasingly had to break up fights and witnessed more use of methamphetamine and other drugs. What’s disturbed her the most is that her clients say they feel unsafe.
“Instead of being downtown and just people watching, they’re kind of like at a keg party,” she said.
“The unintended consequence is that in defunding the police we’ve left some of the very people that I think they would be wanting to champion in an extremely vulnerable position,” she added.
Merchants sent a letter to the city government asking for help. Because of an increase in quality-of-life issues, the city recently contracted a private security firm to patrol the park in front of City Hall, which lies on Church Street.
“I don’t see this as a sort of helpful, thoughtful reallocation of resources,” Mayor Weinberger said regarding the $110,000 contract.
Mark Bouchett, who owns a homegoods store on Church Street, said defunding hit hard for many independent business owners. Quality-of-life issues stacked up, and he became concerned after several female employees said they felt unsafe walking to their cars at night.
He also said many business owners became “terrified” to raise concerns publicly.
“If you speak out against defunding the police force, you’re labeled a racist,” he said. “Or at least an idiot that doesn’t understand the problem.”
By early 2021, the city had begun trying to find a way to fix the problems that defunding had created.
That January, the mayor asked the City Council to raise the officer cap back up to 84. It didn’t pass.
But the council did fund new positions at the department to shift certain calls away from the police. It authorized BPD to hire up to 10 community service officers, which are unarmed, non-sworn positions that support basic police operations, like parking enforcement. It also authorized the hiring of three community support liaisons — social workers who work alongside the department to respond to calls related to homelessness, mental health and substance use.
The nearly eight-month delay in implementing these positions, coupled with the exodus of officers, meant the city was still playing catch up.
”We can’t defund without refunding, the whole point is to fund something else,” said Hightower. “And we didn’t do anything for a very long time.”
‘This is a beginning’
Since 2020, nearly a dozen communities across the U.S. have significantly altered their law enforcement budgets. But the movement to defund has faced a backlash — especially in the face of a soaring nationwide murder rate.
Some have increased police budgets to pay for reforms, while others have reversed defunding decisions. In Austin, Tex., slashing the police budget by 30 percent created many of the same issues Burlington is dealing with, from an exodus of police officers to intense political clashes. In Minneapolis voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to defund the city’s police.
“The big picture message is reality is setting in,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit focused on improving policing. “At the end of the day, they want better policing. They don’t want to abolish the police.”
Shortly after the original defunding resolution passed in June 2020, the city began the process of hiring an outside firm to conduct an independent analysis of the city’s policing.
The independent analysis was released three months ago, in September. It concluded that though BPD has made strides in reform, it’s also grappling with several systemic issues, including an inadequate internal investigation process.
It also noted that community engagement and outreach are under-resourced and the department lacks sufficient training in regard to mental health and de-escalation.
Fixing those kinds of problems will require more training, and therefore, the opposite of defunding, says Chief Murad.
“Good policing is expensive,” Murad said. Reform can’t happen, he added, by “merely saying, ‘We’re just not going to have police anymore.’ I think that that has ultimately proven to be a grand experiment on a national and local level that’s gone awry.”
By the time the analysis was released, the City Council had already unanimously approved $400,000 for acute mental health services. The mayor had also taken steps toward creating a team of mental health professionals and clinicians, who will work with police to handle mental health and substance abuse issues.
The analysis also recommended the city raise its officer cap.
In October, the City Council voted to raise the cap of sworn officers up to 79 — a number within the range recommended in the analysis. The city will also soon be offering $10,000 bonuses to its remaining police officers to prevent any more from quitting.
The raised cap passed 8 to 4. Hightower and Stromberg — one of whom had proposed the staffing cut in 2020, the other of whom had tried to make the cut deeper — were the margin of victory. They broke with the other four Progressives on the council and voted to raise the cap.
Hightower and Stromberg were joined by all the Democrats and independents, including a new independent member who had won election in March 2021 after blasting the way defunding had been handled. He replaced a retiring Democrat who had voted for the original proposal.
Mayor Weinberger thanked Hightower and Stromberg “for recognizing through their votes that our sworn officers are foundational to realizing our shared goals of a transformed, progressive public safety infrastructure in Burlington.”
A week after the vote, Murad stood at a lectern and swore in his newest staff: three community service liaisons, two community service officers and one probationary police officer.
It was a hopeful moment. “I am very, very proud that you have joined this department at this time, when this city needs it so much,” Murad said, before he shook their hands. “This is a beginning.”
Looking back, Councilor Stromberg said, “it would have been probably a little bit better and a little bit smoother of a process to do the assessment, first and foremost. … And it’s a learning experience, I’ll admit, when maybe we didn’t make the right decision.”
Hightower said that although the past year had been difficult, change rarely happens from within.
“The reason we have a really progressive police department is because we have a lot of activists who have constantly pushed the police department,” she said.
Asked if “there was an acknowledgement” the cuts were too deep and too fast, she said, “I think that there’s an acknowledgement that these cuts went too fast for the pace of the alternatives.”
When asked whether she wished she and the council could go back and do it differently, she said, “If wishes were fishes, yeah, of course.”