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 residents 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,” one said. “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, police and residents say.
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 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 aren’t between Republicans and Democrats, but between 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 police responses, has decreased every year since 2016, and the number of high-priority incidents, including violent crimes, makes up less than 10 percent of the total. Before 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 country’s most forward-thinking police departments. It has long prioritized community policing, and it has been praised 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, according to 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 6 percent Black.
In September 2018, a police officer responded to a report of an altercation at a bar. Body camera video 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 independent investigation deemed the officer’s actions unnecessary, and he was disciplined internally.
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,” Dieng said.
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 found 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 that the data are 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 valid licenses 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 American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. “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 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 died.
“The police are not the best social service providers, and they would be the first to say so,” Democratic Councilor Joan Shannon said.
‘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. Protesters 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 City Council. “For us, it wasn’t just a national problem. It was a problem here at home.”
Exactly one month after 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. Neither did current board members.
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 steps, an immediate 30 percent reduction in the number of 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, not 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 diverting police funding to social and racial justice initiatives. It said the money that was saved should be spent on alternative ways to provide 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.
Dieng proposed an amendment to create a task force to study the appropriate number of police officers. Shannon supported the amendment. It didn’t pass.
Jane Stromberg, another newly elected Progressive Party councilor and a recent University of Vermont graduate, proposed an amendment to cut the department even more, to 63 officers by 2023. It didn’t pass.
Hightower’s resolution was approved June 30, just five days after it was proposed.
The vote was 9-3, with all nine yes voters acting as co-sponsors. 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 said. “Nothing was sent to committee for discussion. No effort was made to reach out to groups beyond the activists.”
Although 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,” he said.
‘We’re human beings’
The unintended consequences appeared quickly. Slashing the police force through attrition, which some councilors assumed would take years, instead took months.
Police officers began to leave in droves. Before defunding, Burlington averaged about 95 effective, or active-duty, police officers. Today, the department hovers around 64. Often only five officers are available to patrol at night, said Murad, the police chief. 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 was a lifetime career.
After defunding, Greg said, many officers felt blindsided and believed changes had been made without input from officers themselves. It started to feel like the department had become a flashpoint for all of Burlington’s ills. Protesters gathered outside headquarters. Officers’ cars were keyed, and tires were 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 people 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.
Murad said it could take years to replace the officers he has 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.
The lower number of 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 investigated 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 whether 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, which show that the total number of incidents fell by 11 percent in the first 11 months of the year compared to the same period last year.
Certain types of incidents did become more common, 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 people 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 has been on the Howard Center team for 18 years and led it for the past four, said defunding and the pandemic 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 has 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.
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 is on Church Street.
“I don’t see this as a sort of helpful, thoughtful reallocation of resources,” Weinberger, the mayor, said about the $110,000 contract.
Mark Bouchett, who owns a home goods store on Church Street, said defunding hit many independent business owners hard. 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 this year, the city had begun trying to find a way to fix the problems that defunding had created.
In January, the mayor asked the City Council to raise the officer cap back 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 the police department to hire up to 10 community service officers, who are unarmed and hold 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 the 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,” Hightower said. “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 homicide rate.
Some have increased police budgets to pay for reforms, while others have reversed defunding decisions. In Austin, Texas, 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, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization 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 although the police department has made strides in reform, it is also grappling with several systemic issues, including an inadequate internal investigation process.
It also said that community engagement and outreach are under-resourced and that the department lacks sufficient training in mental health and de-escalation.
Fixing those kinds of problems will require more training — and, therefore, the opposite of defunding, Murad said.
“Good policing is expensive,” he 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,” he said.
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 to create 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 that the city raise its officer cap.
In October, the City Council voted to raise the cap of sworn officers to 79 — within the range recommended in the analysis. The city will also soon offer $10,000 bonuses to its remaining officers to prevent any more from quitting.
Raising the cap passed 8-4. Hightower and Stromberg — one of whom had proposed the staffing cut last year, the other of whom had tried to make the cut deeper — were the margin of victory. They broke with the four other Progressives on the council and voted to raise the cap.
Hightower and Stromberg were joined by all of the Democrats and independents, including a new independent member who had won election in March after he blasted how defunding had been handled. He replaced a retiring Democrat who had voted for the original proposal.
Weinberger, the mayor, 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 members: three community service liaisons, two community service officers and a 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, 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,” adding, “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 has 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 whether “there was an acknowledgment” that the cuts were too deep and too fast, she said, “I think that there’s an acknowledgment that these cuts went too fast for the pace of the alternatives.”
Asked whether she wished she and the council could go back and do it differently, she said, “If wishes were fishes, yeah, of course.”