In a world where the role — and existence — of police is under scrutiny, what does the future hold for law enforcement on a local level?
South Burlington’s police department was recently approved for a $5.2 million budget. That takes up 19.9 percent of the city’s overall spending. By comparison, the Fiscal Year 2020 police budget was $5.1 million.
Is this funding necessary for South Burlington, or, as outspoken community members are saying, is the force too large as it is now?
Police Chief Shawn Burke said the current 38 out of a possible 40-member department has enough funding for one more staffer.
The department’s largest expenditures include salaries and overtime, health benefits, holiday pay, electricity costs and community outreach work with the Howard Mental Health Center.
South Burlington’s Matty Larkspur thinks it’s time for the city — and the nation — to “defund the police,” a term being widely used in response to national outcries of police brutality, most recently in the wake of the May killing of George Floyd.
Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of white Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin. The movement varies from calls to eradicate police forces, reduce police department budgets and reinvest that money into social services.
Cities across the country have taken steps to “defund” their police departments, including in Austin, Texas, where the city’s police budget has been reduced by $150 million, the savings invested into programs including access to food and abortion and violence prevention, according to a Forbes report.
New York City officials cut their police department’s budget by $1 billion, with $354 million of those funds now earmarked for mental health, homelessness and education services, Forbes said.
Larkspur believes that by divesting funds from law enforcement to fund mental health care, affordable housing and social programs society can root out the inequities that lead to crime and unrest.
She has had one interaction with the South Burlington Police Department, and dubbed it a “non-interaction, interaction” — she filmed a police officer who had pulled over another motorist. The officer waved at her.
But the issue isn’t one police department, it’s the system, Larkspur said.
“The problem with police is that they are just fundamentally a tool of control and suppression,” she said. “No matter how you try to ‘reform’ police policing, it’s still about that.”
Police don’t prevent crime but show up after it has already been committed, Larkspur said, and when New York City police officers stopped proactively searching for low-level crime, crime rates dropped.
Indeed, when New York police officers temporarily reduced their “proactive policing” efforts on low-level offenses, major-crime reports in the city fell, according to a Los Angeles Times report from 2017.
Communities would be better served by investing in human services, Larkspur said, and if those investments were made the need for police would cease to exist.
“As you start moving money away from the police and putting it in other places, we find out that we can actually fix these problems, not to punish people who end up on the wrong side of the law,” she said.
What’s the need?
Burke doesn’t believe that providing social services, even over time, would extinguish crime.
He does see a critical need for resources like the Howard Center’s Community Outreach, which pairs social workers with police to respond to people in crisis. The South Burlington Police Department eliminated an officer position to fund Community Outreach as part of its budget, Burke said.
“I agree that we should look at all useful funding and look at better ways to serve those with unmet social needs,” he said. “I think that there is a major piece missing at the state-level in terms of adequate inpatient, outpatient care for those suffering with mental health issues.”
But Burke does not think social workers and human services alone can stop crime.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has housed about 140 housing insecure people at the Holiday Inn on Williston Road to help reduce the spread of the virus. The guests have been provided shelter, basic medical care and mental health services.
“Our call volume there is significant because there’s instability and a non-compliant environment,” Burke said.
He added that police often need to respond before other resources can be used.
“These are worthwhile ventures, but I don’t think you can construct a logical argument to say that it will eventually remediate the need for police,” Burke said.
But social workers respond to people who are a danger to themselves and others regularly, Larkspur countered.
“The best way to deal with that is de-escalation. Bringing guns, bringing the threat of violence into a situation makes it worse,” she said.
There are cases where police can go ahead and dispatch Community Outreach workers to respond. But other times, police must ensure a scene is safe before bringing in a clinician, Burke said.
Plus, training in de-escalation can help officers become active listeners and communicators and create the time needed to bring other resources to an incident, he said.
A community issue
Anne Outwater, of South Burlington, agreed there’s room for change in the city’s police department.
Though she hasn’t personally interacted with South Burlington police, she feels they are respected in the community.
“People here seem to be able to call the police for even small issues with the expectation they will be taken care of. Because of attentiveness to these details, it seems to me that the police are trusted in South Burlington,” she said.
She does think there might be some redundancies in emergency response, like when a number of police, EMTs, and a fire truck all respond to a slip-and-fall. Outwater wonders if funds could be better used in other areas of the city.
“Thirty-eight already seems high to me when I try to figure how many they want on the streets at one time in this small peaceful area,” she said of police staffing levels.
In a June 8 post on the SB VT Community Watch Facebook page, former South Burlington City Councilor Paul Engels wrote in support of defunding the police.
“I thought it was something we should do when I was on the City Council. There were around 45-50 police officers then. There are probably more now. We could do with a fraction of that many,” he wrote.
Stefania Us commented on the post asking Engels why he was “attacking our fine officers.”
“In 40 years I have observed their fair and even-tempered approach, along with updated training and seriously 50, that’s all and you think we can let them go,” Us said.
Aryeh Fishman wrote that she likes the idea of reforming hiring, the budget and more, but thinks that “defunding” the police could be divisive.
Diversifying the force
The South Burlington Police Department is allowed up to 40 employees, and currently has 38 positions filled. This includes two Hispanic people, one African American person and eight women, Burke said.
The department hasn’t found the right formula for attracting a more diverse workforce yet, Burke said, adding that seems to be true across the country.
Recruiting new police officers, in general, has been a challenge since 2014 and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a “watershed” moment, Burke said, along with other deadly use of force incidents in places like Maryland, New York City and Chicago.
“I think it’s definitely kind of cooled some appetite to getting into the work,” Burke said.
The department is also making efforts to engage and recruit a diverse workforce, he said. The department has had facetime through guest lectures on college campuses, at job fairs and on social media.
“When you’re identifying candidates, look for good moral character and critical thinking skills, because that’s the foundation,” he said. “Then go beyond that, you’re thinking of diversity or different life experiences or educational experiences. That’s a bonus but the foundation has to be good, strong moral character.”
Looking ahead, Burke wants to maintain training funds. Beyond that costs are fairly static, he said.
As for the defunding movement?
“I think that is a community conversation, what they want their police department to look like,” Burke said. “If you were going to take any real money it would have to be from salary and what you’d have to do then is pull up the organizational chart, figure out what was no longer important to the city.”