Mayor, progressives differ on plans to curtail Burlington crime uptick


Max Abrahams

A Burlington Police car driving past the department station on 1 North Ave. Jan. 20. Mayor Miro Weinberger released a new public safety plan focusing on 2022’s historic number of homicides.

A new public safety plan, released by Mayor Miro Weinberger on Jan. 12, outlines the steps being taken in order to address a historic number of homicides in Burlington in 2022. 

The mayor’s plan focuses on preventing gun violence, improving the downtown climate, continuing to implement policing reforms and rebuilding the police department. 

The five homicides that took place in Burlington in 2022 are the most the city has seen since 1960, according to a Dec. 6, 2022 Associated Press article. This is a historic high for the city, which averaged only one homicide per year between 2012 and 2021. 

Progressives on the city council released their own community safety platform, highlighting the strategies they would take in response to the mayor’s plan. 

City Councilor Joe Magee, a Progressive, says that the mayor’s plan fails to address the underlying causes of crime in Burlington and the issue of racial bias among police. 

“When we’re talking about root causes, it’s investing in those areas that would have a longer term impact and helping folks find stability, access treatment for mental health or substance use disorders, and making sure that they have access to the support that they need to be able to find stability,” Magee said.

One of the focuses of the Progressives’ platform is police oversight and instituting a Community Control Board. The board would reinstate community trust in police in the wake of scandals, use-of-force incidents and officer-involved shootings, according to the platform.

“The police department works for the people of Burlington and the people of Burlington should be the ones to oversee the department,” Magee said. “We continue to see uses of force here in the city, and there needs to be a more transparent way of getting accountability for that.”

The Progressives’ platform calls for an increase in alternative responders, formation of a crisis response team, further addressing of racial bias in policing and the opening of an overdose prevention site.

Both plans aim to prevent gun violence and increase police retention but have different methods for achieving those goals, according to a Jan. 6 VTDigger article.

Rebuilding the Burlington Police Department is essential to curbing crime uptick in the city, said Acting Police Chief Jon Murad.

“Violence can be prevented by police presence, but you’ve got to have police to do it,” Murad said.

Murad said he believes a higher presence of officers in the city will increase the ability of the department to reduce violent crime in Burlington.

“As we build out, we’re going to be able to do much more successfully what we’ve already tried to do over the past two years, which is getting a handle on [gunfire] incidents,” he said.

Investing so heavily in policing is not evidence-based and there is no indication of higher police budgets having any effect on violence, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Progressives’ safety platform has named root causes of crime, such as mental health crises, substance abuse disorder, and racism and inequity that would have a greater effect on crime if addressed.

Violence in Burlington has been steadily increasing in the past three years, but was not met with urgency by the larger Burlington community, Murad said.

“Gunfire incidents [in Burlington] started accelerating in 2020,” he said. “We were very clear that that was happening. There were a lot of people, including the media and other parts of the community, who insisted that it really wasn’t happening or that it wasn’t that important because the gunfire incidents weren’t striking people.”

Murad said he attributes the increase in gunfire incidents in part to the downsizing of the department that took place in 2020 after the Burlington City Council voted to reduce police forces through attrition.

“I do believe the diminution of the police department played a role,” Murad said. “It absolutely played a role in a sense that there was less of a police presence downtown where a number of these incidents occurred.”

Murad said many of the gunfire incidents were committed by people with long histories of police interaction who were not incarcerated for various reasons, including lack of evidence in favor of charging them or referral to family court because of their age.

Magee said there is more to the issue of gun violence than a shortage of police, citing domestic violence as the root cause of violence that could be addressed in alternative ways to increasing police numbers.

“The acting chief and the mayor continue to center the staffing crisis when we know that there are groups that are doing [domestic violence support] and that could have much longer lasting impact in terms of supporting folks and sort of centering survivors and victims of crime,” he said.

Besides increasing police retention, the mayor’s plan looks to combat crime by updating theft laws, funding gun violence research and influencing action on the state level by writing stricter gun laws, such as prohibiting guns in bars, requiring the reporting of illegal firearms and making discharging a firearm to commit reckless endangerment a felony.

The mayor’s public safety plan also includes the creation of a Mayor’s Task Force to prevent gun violence headed by Kim Carson, Burlington’s director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging. 

Murad said he believes Carson’s task force will be beneficial to the city. 

“That’s something I think has real promise,” he said. “We’re hopeful that that will be a tool for us preventing the recurrence of what we saw in 2022, because nobody wants a recurrence of 2022.”

Murad said the Burlington Police Department will also continue to expand their usage of unarmed community service officers and community support liaisons, a measure both the mayor’s and progressives’ plans mention.

Progressives also support further implementation of community service officers and community support liaisons and recognize their importance in reducing racial disparity in policing, Magee said. 

Murad said the BPD regularly coordinates with UVM Police Services and that he believes UVM students are generally safe.

“We take the safety of our student population very seriously, and the fact is […] most of the time, if you are not out and about and associating with people who already have criminal histories in the wee hours of the morning, you’re not at risk for these types of incidents,” he said. 

While having confidence in the safety of students, Murad said the department still sees student safety as a top priority.

“When these incidents happen, they can spill over into people who aren’t involved, and we’re cognizant of that,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that the city is as safe as possible for everyone, including our students.”

City Councilor Maea Brandt, whose district partially covers UVM, said she is aware of the dangers posed to students in Burlington.

“The reality of public safety for students […] is huge and it’s something I take very seriously,” Brandt said.

Brandt, a Democrat, said that while she recognizes addressing the mental health and addiction aspects of crime in Burlington as a necessity, having a replenished police force remains a top priority for her.

“Right now, in addition to finding root causes for crime and providing mental health professionals and addiction specialists for people who need it, we do also need police officers who will enforce laws and ordinances,” she said.

Brandt said she is in full support of the mayor’s new public safety plan and is confident that it will begin to make Burlington a safer place to live.

“It’s an initiative to address some of the root causes of the violence but also taking immediate action to address the presence of guns that are unregistered that are not stored properly,” she said. “His plan is about taking action right now to make Burlington safer.”

Part of the mayor’s plan includes seeking legislative action that requires the reporting of stolen handguns to law enforcement and safe storage of handguns statewide.

Sophomore Ally Myrtue, who lives on campus, said she feels comfortable on University grounds but not so much in the larger Burlington area.

“With the shootings going on I’ve kind of been wary, especially at night,” Myrtue said. “I definitely stick to being with friends downtown.”

Sophomore Brendan McAleer, who also lives on campus, said the crime in Burlington has made him more cautious.

“Going downtown on Friday and Saturday nights was kind of scary,” he said. “It still lingers with me whenever I go downtown that there’s a lot of sketchy stuff going on.”

Junior Lina Said, who lives off campus, said Burlington’s increase in crime has kept her from spending more time in the city.

“I recently got a car, and that has opened many doors for me to be in Burlington a lot more,” she said. “The more I learned about what is happening in Burlington, […] I realized I should probably just stay home.” 

Junior Dylan Clements, who also lives off campus, said that he has never felt concern for his safety, either on campus or downtown.

“I’ve never really felt any safety concerns in the Burlington area,” he said. 

For more information about staying safe on campus, visit UVM Police Services’ personal safety tips.