A Vermont city is paying the price of slashing its police force by nearly 30% amid the defund the police movement that spread across the country in 2020.
“We’re in a situation that I think nobody wanted us to get to,” Burlington Councilor Zoraya Hightower, who introduced defunding the police force last year, told NBC News.
Burlington, a majority White college town near the Canadian border, slashed its police force by almost 30% by attrition. Hightower’s resolution last year was partially written by an activist group called the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and included suggestions such as decreasing the number of officers from 105 to 74.
It also ended the school resource officer program and called for the money from that program to be directed to racial justice initiatives, NBC News reported. The resolution also called for 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.”
What soon followed was police officers leaving en masse, quality-of-life issues and problems with public safety. And consequently, virtually “no one” happy, the outlet reported.
“If you speak out against defunding the police force, you’re labeled a racist,” business owner Mark Bouchett said. “Or at least an idiot that doesn’t understand the problem.”
He added that he became concerned with the state of the city after female employees were afraid to walk to their cars at night following the resolution passing.
Some councilors reportedly assumed that slashing the force by attrition would unfold over years, but instead, cops left the force quickly. Burlington averaged about 95 active-duty officers before defunding, and now has only about 64, the outlet reported. Only five officers are able to patrol at night most of the time, according to acting Police Chief Jon Murad.
“The exit interviews have been pretty clear that it was about a lack of support in a political sense,” Murad said of why officers left. “And a sense of saying: ‘This is not how I want to serve anymore. I don’t feel valued.’”
One of the officers, identified as Greg, said that he worked at the department for nearly 10 years but resigned a year after the resolution passed.
“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.”
Burlington has long been known as a progressive city, and was home to where Sen. Bernie Sanders started his political career as the city’s mayor in the 1980s. Its police force had also long prioritized community policing, implemented body cameras for officers, and cut itself off from a federal program that gives military equipment to police departments, NBC reported.
The force came under fire in recent years despite the progressive policies for disproportionate use of force with people of color following a handful of incidents in a city that is 6% Black.
“We had all these issues leading up to the pandemic and leading up to the murder of George Floyd,” said Hightower. “For us, it wasn’t just a national problem. It was a problem here at home.”
She introduced her resolution to slash the force one month after Floyd died, and it was approved on June 30.
“We made this decision with no public process,” Democratic Councilor Joan Shannon said. “Nothing was sent to committee for discussion. No effort was made to reach out to groups beyond the activists.”
Shannon, a Democrat, describes herself as the “right wing” of the council, which is dominated by members of the Progressive Party.
The city’s Democratic mayor, Miro Weinberger, did not support slashing police force and said that “there’s a lot of damage that has been done in the last 16 months.”
It is unclear if crime has risen in the city this year, as numbers have not yet been released. But incidents such as burglary, vehicle thefts and mental health issues and overdoses have become more common.
One woman who leads an outreach program at a mental health provider in the area reported her colleagues have seen more drug use, broken up more fights and say their clients feel unsafe since the force was defunded.
“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,” Tammy Boudah told NBC News.
Hightower did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment on who is responsible for the deteriorating condition of the most vulnerable.
The city council voted in October to raise the cap of sworn officers to 79 and will offer $10,000 bonuses to officers already on the force to prevent more resignations.
Progressive Party councilwoman Jane Stromberg reflected on the resolution last year that, “it would have been probably a little bit better and a little bit smoother of a process to do the assessment, first and foremost.”
“And it’s a learning experience, I’ll admit, when maybe we didn’t make the right decision.”
Hightower added, “I think that there’s an acknowledgment that these cuts went too fast for the pace of the alternatives.”
“If wishes were fishes, yeah, of course,” she told NBC when asked if she wished the council could go back and defund differently.
The case in Burlington is similar to other cities that also moved to defund last year, but have since beefed up its police department following crime increases.
“If you want to fix policing you have to hire cops, you have to train them differently and hold them accountable,” Chuck Wexler, the Police Executive Research Forum’s executive director, told the Wall Street Journal last month. “The notion that taking away resources is going to improve policing is ridiculous.”
Cities such as Baltimore, Portland and Oakland, California, have all moved to or already beefed up funding to police departments amid crime spikes.
“Many Portlanders no longer feel safe,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said last month when the city council increased the police budget by $5.2 million. “And it is our duty, as leaders of this city, to take action and deliver better results within our crisis response system.”