At Burlington City Hall, conservative activists call for greater support for law enforcement

At Burlington City Hall, conservative activists call for greater support for law enforcement
Ericka Redic, a Republican running for Congress as a Libertarian, speaks at a workshop held by Keep Vermont Safe on improving public safety in Burlington on Friday, September 9, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — In the same venue in which officials have for years debated how to fund and oversee their police department, roughly two dozen people gathered Friday evening to call for greater support for law enforcement in the city and across the state.

The event, titled “Crime & Punishment,” was hosted at Burlington City Hall’s Contois Auditorium by the pro-police organization Keep Vermont Safe. It was moderated by Ericka Redic, a conservative content creator and the Libertarian nominee for Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat, as well as Christopher-Aaron Felker, chair of the city’s Republican committee.

Panelists included Christina Nolan, a former U.S. Attorney for Vermont and Republican U.S. Senate candidate; Michael Hall, executive director of the Vermont Police Coalition; and Brady Toensing, a former vice chair of the state GOP who led former President Donald Trump’s Vermont campaign committee in 2016 and went on to serve in Trump’s Department of Justice. 

A spokesperson for Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Friday that while the event took place in City Hall, the city did not sponsor it. 

Redic opened the roughly 2-hour discussion talking about the number of gunfire incidents (defined as occasions in which a firearm is discharged in what police suspect is a criminal manner) in Burlington so far this year: 23. Of those, 12 have seen someone get struck, and three — including one on Sept. 4 — have been homicides. 

The city averaged two gunfire incidents per year from 2012 through 2019, officials have said, and there were a dozen such incidents in 2020 and 14 in 2021.

Keep Vermont Safe held a workshop on improving public safety in Burlington on Friday, September 9, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Redic called the attendees Friday “the brave souls who came to downtown Burlington,” adding there were people who wanted to come to the panel Friday but ended up deciding not to after learning about the homicide earlier in the week. 

“This is a conversation that we’re having because many of us don’t recognize where we are these days,” Redic told the crowd, as many attendees nodded in agreement.

One attendee wore a shirt that read, “Black Guns Matter.” 

That perceived lack of safety in Burlington has been echoed across social media and in news reports this year. In a letter in the Sept. 7 edition of Seven Days, publisher Paula Routly wrote that she has wondered if Burlington is “as safe as it once was.”

“For the first time since I moved here almost four decades ago, I’m thinking twice about walking home at night,” Routly said. “I suspect I’m not the only one.”

Yet a recent analysis of 10 years of crime data conducted by Seven Days found that despite a short-term increase in some types of crimes in Burlington — such as burglaries and car break-ins — the overall volume of crime has declined significantly over the past decade. Violent crime specifically is also at its lowest point in a decade, Seven Days found. 

Hall, who previously served as chief of the Manchester Police Department, said Friday he believes that Burlington Police’s crime statistics are likely an undercount because people have “lost faith” in law enforcement and may not decide to call 911.

Speakers also said that regardless of whether data shows an increase or decrease in crime in the city, what matters is that they believe locals are feeling uneasy. 

They went on to make the case that, therefore, city and state officials should do more to bolster the ranks of local and state law enforcement — rather than make policy they claimed was motivated by nationwide efforts to “defund the police.” 

Attorney Brady Toensing speaks at a workshop held by Keep Vermont Safe on improving public safety in Burlington on Friday, September 9, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Amid public pressure following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Burlington City Council in 2020 voted to reduce the police department’s budget by about $1 million to account for a planned 30% reduction in the number of officers through attrition. More officers have left than expected, though, reducing the number of patrol-ready cops by about 50%.

More recently, city officials have been working to rebuild the force. The city’s fiscal year 2023 budget — approved in June — allocates an additional $1.2 million to the effort. Councilors have also increased the cap on the number of police officers the department can hire and approved officer bonuses funded with federal Covid-19 aid. 

Weinberger and Acting Police Chief Jon Murad have argued that hiring more police officers is key to increasing public safety in the city. But critics, including council Progressives, have said that rather than allocate more money to the department, funds should instead be invested into social services designed to mitigate issues that may lead people to have encounters with the police in the future.

The city’s latest budget doubles the size of two programs that, as part of officials’ police reform efforts, replace fully sworn officers with community support liaisons (social workers who follow up on people who have interacted with police) and community service officers (staffers who have the authority to issue tickets and respond to calls such as noise complaints). The budget also allocated $400,000 for the hiring of a social-service crisis team, a group of health professionals that would respond to mental health emergencies instead of armed officers. 

Speaking at the event Friday, Nolan acknowledged the council’s recent rebuilding efforts but told attendees she felt it was too little, too late. 

“The decision to defund the police has caused extraordinary damage. It’s the reason we’re sitting here tonight,” she said. “I have heard the city council is taking steps to reverse the decision. But the extraordinary damage has already been done.”

Nolan and others also voiced opposition to a proposal drawn up in the Legislature earlier this year to end qualified immunity — a widespread legal doctrine established in U.S. Supreme Court precedent that protects public servants from facing litigation for violating citizens’ civil rights while on the job — for police officers. 

As it applies to cops, agencies and municipalities say qualified immunity is a necessary guard so that officers can police without fear of frivolous lawsuits. But critics argue it allows officers to act with impunity and denies victims of police brutality a path to justice in civil court.

The resulting legislation, Act 126, calls merely for a study of the issue. Proponents asserted a “unified front” of law enforcement and municipalities pressured legislators to weaken the bill, and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, later said the proposed legislation lacked support from the start.

Toensing, the former party official, said Friday he believes that ending qualified immunity for police would only exacerbate the staffing challenges agencies are facing. 

“It’s unfathomable to me that they would try to open our law enforcement officers to that kind of liability,” Toensing said. “If they pass this law, every single police department in Vermont will probably drain itself of any sort of talent.”

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