Crime and Justice

The Deeper Dig: Will Burlington slash its police budget?

Harmony Edosomwan, an activist based in Burlington, calls for defunding police in Vermont at a rally in Montpelier on June 7, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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The national protest movement following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has coalesced around a policy goal: defunding police departments nationwide. Now, constituents of Vermont’s largest municipal police force are bringing that fight to Burlington.

Hundreds of residents called into public hearings this week to support the demands of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance as the city drafts its budget for the next fiscal year. Those demands include reducing uniformed Burlington police officers by 30% and using the money to fund racial equity initiatives in the city.

In two statements this week, the city’s police union has pushed back on the idea, calling defunding “radical and dangerous” and stating that “any reduction in the size of the Burlington Police Department will make Burlingtonians less safe.”

Mayor Miro Weinberger has said he shares protesters’ outrage over Floyd’s death and the structural problems that led to it. But he has declined to signal how closely the budget he will present to the city council next Monday will hew to the demands voiced this week.

**Podcast transcript**

This week: the national protest movement following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has coalesced around a policy goal of defunding police departments. Now, constituents of Vermont’s largest municipal police force are bringing that fight to Burlington.

Last weekend saw the second major round of protests in Vermont over the recent wave of killings by police. At one demonstration on the Statehouse steps, multiple speakers said it was time to slash police budgets.

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Ash Diggs: We need to defund the police. I am not sorry for saying it. And you may ask if we defund the police, how will they protect us? I ask, how are they protecting us now? 

Generally, proponents of this idea argue that tax dollars could be better spent on social services, while police unions say departments barely have enough staff to handle calls as it is. 

Over the course of this week, hundreds of people brought these arguments to public hearings in Burlington that will help guide decision makers there on whether to slash the city’s police budget. Our reporter Aidan Quigley has been listening in.

Aidan Quigley: I think it was 20 people last Wednesday at a meeting sharing some of these ideas, but it was really on Monday night at the Board of Finance meeting, during a six hour public forum, where people were sharing the demands of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance. 

Caitlin Kriv: We demand a 30% reduction in the police force. We demand that you remove police from our schools, where they cause nothing but harm. And we demand that you stop policing our black and brown children.

Aidan Quigley: Essentially, a 30% decrease in headcount for the police department, getting officers out of schools, firing three officers involved in very public use of force incidents…

Caitlin Kriv: We teach our kids that violence isn’t the answer, but every day they see the police using violence to solve so-called problems. And in the case of officers Corrow, Campbell and Bellavance, using violence without provocation and without consequence towards people of color. They’re supposed to be public servants and they have failed to live up to that purpose.

Aidan Quigley: And then basically use the funding, say from the police department, to invest in people of color in the city of Burlington.

Hen Joyner: Leave the vacant positions vacant. We demand that funds be reinvested in communities of color in Burlington. Do not pass a budget until these demands are met. 

Aidan Quigley: It’s really been something to listen to. I listened to 10 hours of public forum on Monday and Tuesday, between the Monday Board of Finance meeting and the Tuesday Police Commission meeting, where caller after caller was saying, we support these demands. We think Vermont will be safer if we have less police officers, and instead we invest in social services. Basically, take the funding from the police department and use it in other community building ways.

Emiliano Void: My name is Emiliano Void. My great-grandparents were slaves, and I am a black resident of Burlington, Vermont. For the past weeks, I’ve watched the frustrations of my community boil over into the streets of our country and industries all around the world. We’ve created a movement bringing about global awareness to our plight.

We’ve poured our suffering and struggling to the national spotlight. And we’ve lit a fire for equality. Elected officials of Burlington: we need your help to feed and foster this new flame. 

What is the tone of these conversations? These virtual meetings that are happening over Zoom, where you’ve got this parade of residents calling in, what’s the mood like in these calls?

Aidan Quigley: It’s definitely strong organizing work to have six hours worth of people — which is at least 250 on, on Monday, and then probably another 200 or so on Tuesday — call into these municipal meetings. I’m used to five or 10 people at public forum, sometimes more like 50, if it’s a really intense issue, but never anything close to the amount of people that we’ve seen coming out and listing the demands of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance.

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Mayumi Cornell: It pains me to know that I can be stopped only for the way that I look. It angered me and it frightened me. And I beg you, hear me now: stop. There is systematic racism from the top to the bottom, and we are disingenuous if we don’t think that it’s here.

Aidan Quigley: Some people were talking about their own personal experiences. Some people talked about, as people of color in the city, they don’t feel safe. They feel like the police are kind of doing the opposite of what they expect the police to do, which is protecting people, by making them unsafe, and stopping them based on the color of their skin. 

Estefania Puerta: I am a Latinx person. I think I am the first one here. And I just want to say that the police has never made me feel safe since I was a child. And I think that that is the sentiment of many people of color in Vermont and in Burlington specifically. 

Michael Hill: While sitting on this call, I can’t even describe how my body has been, I think it’s been the same way every time I pass a cop cruiser. So I just want to see some change. 

Aidan Quigley: There’s also definitely — a vast majority of people who called in identified themselves as white allies, who just wanted to amplify the calls of the Racial Justice Alliance as well. 

Thierry Mugabo Uwilingiyimana: Like many people have reiterated, these are reasonable requests that hopefully speak to larger systemic changes. If we can envision a safer, healthier community without coercive force, we can start to imagine a better community. 

What they’re proposing, I think to a lot of people, sounds like a really radical re-imagining of what we think of as a police department, what we think of as public safety. How much are the people who are calling into these addressing that this is a really potentially drastic shift from what we’ve known? 

Aidan Quigley: I think there’s definitely an understanding that these are a different path, I guess, for Burlington, from what we’re seeing elsewhere. But at the same time, we are seeing these calls really gain steam across the country. 

After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Minneapolis City Council said that they were wanting to start the process towards completely dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. Which isn’t quite what residents are calling for, at least yet — at least the demands of the Racial Justice Alliance is not to eliminate the police department, but it’s to reduce the force and invest elsewhere.

Ian Lund: Ostensibly progressive cities like Burlington and Minneapolis need to set an example for other municipalities governed by a white majority. Let’s show we care about our black and brown brothers and sisters by dismantling the systems that our own black Vermonters are telling us cause them trauma. 

How specific are they being about where that money should go? What types of community resources do these activists see as the target for some of this funding? 

Aidan Quigley: They’re being pretty specific on where they want to see that this funding go. They want an establishment of an office of equal opportunity in the city, which would oversee a new minority owned business procurement program, to encourage people of color to start businesses. They also want more funding for the city’s racial equity, inclusion and belonging program, and more city partnerships with minority-owned businesses. 

It seems like those are pretty specific to the community outreach side of things. What about in terms of what we think of as traditional police work — responding to crimes, responding to calls of different types of incidents — have they addressed what that would look like with a significantly shrunken Burlington police force? 

Aidan Quigley: The idea is that there still is a police force to respond to those calls. It’s just less of them. Getting officers out of the schools would be one step to limit the number of officers.

I think the idea, at least that activists in Burlington are pushing for, is to keep the department in some way, but make it, basically, significantly less than what it is now, size-wise. 

Mayor Miro Weinberger: Good afternoon again. Thanks for tuning in for the Wednesday public briefing.

What’s been the response so far from leadership in the city? When these calls first started coming in, how did they respond? 

Aidan Quigley: I think over time, the city has gotten more open to this idea, especially Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Miro Weinberger: The unprecedented participation in the public forum at Monday’s Board of Finance meeting and last night’s Police Commission meeting is part of the overdue and much needed national reckoning we are having all over the country about policing and safety. 

Aidan Quigley: On Wednesday, he said that he would be posing some cuts to the police department budget. It’s unclear what those cuts will look like and how substantial they will be. Will they meet the 30% reduction in the officers, which is being requested?

Miro Weinberger: I have great hope in my heart. And expect that with this budget, we will make impactful and long overdue progress towards racial justice in Burlington. 

Aidan Quigley: But I think the biggest dissenting voice that we’ve heard is the Burlington Police Officers Association. It’s the police union. They’ve released a statement that really kind of bashed Burlington city councilors who were getting on board with this idea. They said it was “radical and dangerous.” They released this on, I believe it was Monday evening during the Board of Finance meeting. And on Tuesday, a lot of the callers into the Police Commission meeting were kind of taken aback by the statement. 

Taken aback why? 

Aidan Quigley: They just thought that the statement was kind of inflammatory, I guess. Here’s a quote: “Some members of the Burlington City Council seem to be more concerned with introducing resolutions that offer catchy headlines and radical ideas without doing enough research into the potential ramifications of those ideas.” And kind of the pushback was that activists, especially people of color, have been doing this work for a long time and really thinking about how to reimagine policing.

They were unhappy that the officers who are supposed to be keeping the community safe would weigh in with such a strongly worded statement, I think. 

Emma Redden: We do know the ramifications of these ideas. There would be fewer cops to abuse and kill people. It’s not that we’re confused or stupid or unprepared. It’s that we’re holding a mirror up to y’all, and y’all don’t like what you see.

Aidan Quigley: The Tuesday meeting was an emergency meeting of the Police Commission to talk about some tweaks to the use of force policy. And something that I think has been really interesting to watch in Burlington is kind of a shift away from the idea that reforms can work to improve the department. I think we’re seeing that nationally as well. 

Kate Jerman: If you were thinking that less drastic measures are possible, I assure you that they’re not. Reforms instituted in communities across the country for the last several decades have not resulted in improvement. Abolition must be the goal. 

Aidan Quigley: Tuesday’s meeting was discussing the use of force policy proposed by the special committee. And that was in line with the “8 Can’t Wait” steps that have been circulating to improve police departments following Minneapolis. Instead, we heard four hours of people calling for significant cuts in funding to the department.

Catarina Campbell: Allocation of funds to the police is not a sustainable investment. Those dollars compound and disproportionately exacerbate the violence, generational poverty and suffering of our citizens. Promises of reform have been used across our histories as a rhetorical tool to evade meaningful change and divestment from racism.

You’re saying there’s kind of a tension here between people who believe that incremental reforms are the path forward for the Burlington Police Department, versus people who are saying, we really need to make much more drastic cuts to this police budget. 

Aidan Quigley: Absolutely. And I think the mayor is definitely on the side of incremental reforms.

Miro Weinberger: I think we have an outstanding police department. I think it’s a very different police department from many of the agencies that you’ve seen in the news around these terrible events nationwide. At the same time, I think it would be wrong to think we didn’t also need to make progress, we didn’t also have our own challenges. 

Aidan Quigley: I am interested to see how this plays out. Because based on what he’s been saying this week, it sounds like he’s open to larger cuts to the department after hearing from the public. At least that’s what he said at a press conference on Wednesday. I’m definitely interested to see how the budget itself turns out, which he’s going to be presenting to the city council on Monday.

Who actually makes the call about whether or not the Burlington Police Department will see these types of cuts that are being called for? 

Aidan Quigley: It’s going to come down to the Burlington City Council. Which is going to be interesting, especially since the Progressives have picked up a handful of seats. But it’s still a pretty evenly divided council, especially since Ali Dieng, who had caucused with the Progressives now caucuses as an independent. He’s kind of the swing vote between the Democrats and the Progressives. So it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Basically, the next step is on Monday, we’re going to be at the Board of Finance meeting, and then the City Council meeting where the mayor will unveil his budget, which will then be discussed by the City Council. It’ll definitely be interesting to see if the Progressives push for possibly further cuts to the police department’s budget, or if they are comfortable with what the mayor is able to come up with. 

I know part of the national conversation here has been not just about defunding, but in some places — and you mentioned Minneapolis — completely dismantling or abolishing the police in their city. It sounds like that’s not on the table in Burlington as of right now. 

Aidan Quigley: There’s definitely some people who want to see that happen. But I think that a majority of the people who called were pretty specific with the 30% reduction in officers and the rest of the demands of the Racial Justice Alliance.

The mayor is definitely not in favor of dismantling the police department. He’s said that he doesn’t think that the issues of Burlington are basically anywhere close to the issues of Minneapolis, policing-wise. I would say at this point, dismantling the department is off the table, but I do think we will see some significant support from the council to take some major steps to reduce police funding.

Got it. Thanks Aidan. I appreciate it. 

Aidan Quigley: Awesome.

Burlington isn’t the only city that’s talking about this. The Montpelier City Council heard public comments this week about defunding police there. And three progressive lawmakers have requested a 20% cut to the Vermont State Police budget. Right now, legislators are focused on a broader set of police reforms that would include banning choke holds, mandating the use of body cameras and expanding the collection of race data for traffic stops. But even those measures likely won’t see action in the House until later this summer.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Michael Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is in charge of comment review, social media engagement and multimedia productions.

Dougherty is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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