Courts & Corrections

Assault case feeds debate on ‘quality of life’ policing in Burlington

BURLINGTON — Police said Wednesday that a transient man assaulted the owner of a downtown restaurant over the weekend.

Michael Reynolds, 40, allegedly entered East West Cafe on Saturday afternoon and claimed he was the owner. When asked to leave, Reynolds punched the actual owner, Brett Richland, in the chest, causing him to fall into tables and chairs before hitting the floor, police said in a news release.

Michael Reynolds
Michael Reynolds, 40, is accused of assaulting a downtown restaurant owner after refusing to leave the property. Burlington police photo
Reynolds, who police said is homeless and appeared to be intoxicated, was arrested on suspicion of assault and jailed. He was arraigned and released on conditions, according to police.

The incident comes as Burlington city councilors are considering steps to address violent and unruly behavior downtown that officials say is driven by the homeless or those who lack stable housing.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo is advocating for criminal penalties for people who rack up a dozen or more civil violations for public drunkenness, public urination or similar “quality of life” infractions.

Those efforts follow an attack downtown Aug. 8 that resulted in a person slashing a man’s throat on Main Street near City Hall Park. That incident took place just blocks from where Louis Fortier allegedly stabbed and killed Richard Medina on Church Street in March.

Councilor Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, plans to introduce a resolution at Monday’s council meeting that would direct the ordinance committee to study changing Burlington’s system of civil violations for “quality of life” offenses to eventually charge repeat offenders with a misdemeanor — mirroring a recent proposal from del Pozo.

Currently civil violations, which also include smoking marijuana in public or having an open container of alcohol, result in tickets that carry a fine.

Wright said he has heard from police that ticketing has proven ineffective, something del Pozo has said publicly on a number of occasions.

“These guys know the system, they sometimes rip (tickets) up or set them on fire right in front of the police officer,” Wright said, echoing the chief.

“The civil system works in most cases, but if you don’t care about your credit score, or you’re entrenched in that behavior, it’s not effective,” del Pozo said recently. “Our cops have realized that in many cases writing the ticket is a fruitless act and have stopped writing them.”

Rep. Kurt Wright
Kurt Wright is a Republican Burlington city councilor. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger
Reynolds, the suspect in Saturday’s alleged assault, has had 894 contacts with police since 2011. His criminal history consists of 109 arrests on misdemeanor charges and eight felony arrests, with a total of 31 criminal convictions, according to a police news release.

Reynolds has received more than 50 tickets for infractions that include consumption of open alcoholic beverages, trespassing and public urination. He has more than $10,000 in outstanding fines to the city. Reynolds has also been issued more than 90 notices of trespass since 2014, according to police.

Wright said unruly behavior is a growing problem in the downtown area and that he has heard concerns from many business owners about public drunkenness.

“We can’t just turn a blind eye. I think we’ve done that to some degree to this growing problem,” he said.

Wright said the ordinance change would aim to help police reduce unlawful behavior by what he described as a small number of people, on the order of 10 to 25 individuals. The group causing the issues won’t be deterred through more funding and services, as critics of the proposal contend, Wright said.

“They want to be on the street. They don’t want to go somewhere where they can’t drink. They want to engage in unruly behavior,” Wright said.

Councilor Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said he is opposed to the resolution because it’s too open-ended in terms of what criminal offenses it might cover. “The resolution really focuses on penalties and doesn’t deal with the problems from a public health standpoint,” Tracy said.

Tracy wants to bring business owners, the Howard Center’s Street Outreach Team and other stakeholders together to find noncriminal, comprehensive solutions. Tracy said he supports concepts such as adding a shelter where alcohol is allowed, offering safe locations where people can inject drugs, expanding housing and improving drug addiction treatment.

“I don’t see how this particular ordinance could have prevented the stabbing,” he said.

Wright stressed that the resolution did not focus on the homeless population but rather behavior by some of them. Wright said his proposal is also meant to protect homeless people who feel unsafe and are being harassed by others on the streets.

Jane Knodell
City Councilor Jane Knodell, P-Central District. File photo by Phoebe Sheehan/VTDigger
Council President Jane Knodell, P-Central District, said the criminalization of certain behaviors would help reduce problems in the downtown. She is co-sponsoring Wright’s resolution and said the assault on the owner of the East West Cafe reaffirms her support for the measure.

“You need different responses for different people and different situations,” Knodell said.

She also supports a second resolution that Councilor Adam Roof, I-Ward 8, plans to introduce that asks the public safety committee to convene a group of social service providers to look at options for dealing with public health and public safety issues.

The resolution also requests a comprehensive report of services currently available, a recommendation on how to engage state officials, and specific options as well as their cost.

Roof said he is open to supporting Wright’s criminalization resolution but would like to see it amended to include more clarity and specific types of behavior. He would also like to see a review process if changes to civil violations are implemented.

“I think that may be a piece that fits in the larger puzzle,” Roof said of Wright’s resolution.

In the meantime, he would like to see increased staff for the Street Outreach Team and other efforts to provide support for homeless people.

“We need to be doing everything that we can be doing to provide help to people who want it,” he said.

Wright acknowledged that his resolution was not a complete solution to issues surrounding homelessness in the city. He also plans to support Roof’s resolution.

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