Burlington, Vermont used to be known as a bustling college town on the edge of Lake Champlain, with minimal safety issues, a beautiful environment, and progressive social efforts. There was crime, like in any city, but most of it was property-related so violence was minimal. Citizens could walk around at night feeling safe, the streets were clean, the homeless population was well taken care of, and it was known as a great place to live. However, this all changed in June 2020 when the city followed nationwide trends to defund its police force. The intention behind the defunding was good. Though Burlington’s police force was considered more progressive than many places, having already implemented mandates requiring body cameras and removing its ties to a federal program that gives military equipment to police departments; Burlington, like most places, had some trouble with its police force being unjustly prejudiced against people of color and mistreating people with mental illness. So, following the nationwide trend, citizens got together and protested, advocating that the police force be defunded in an attempt to solve this problem. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, defunding the police had other unintended consequences that led to the city falling apart, and solved none of the problems it was designed to address. As a matter of fact, one of the primary problems, the disproportionate percentage of black arrests compared to the percentage of the city’s black population, actually increased from roughly 17% to 21% since defunding the police, though the black population remained at 6.2%. The percentage of use of force incidents against people of color increased as well.
Since the defunding of Burlington’s police force, homicide and gunfire incidents have increased by 80% and 69% respectively. Property crime has increased by 11%. Litter now lines the streets. Graffiti tags cover buildings and other surfaces even in the busiest, most populated parts of the city. The actions of the homeless population go unchecked and their needs go unsupported. At any given time, the city is only able to send out 5 patrols at a time, which is not nearly enough to keep order. A once safe and beautiful city has become a place that people avoid. How did this happen?
Post defunding, the Burlington police force dropped from 95 to 64 officers, causing a significant decrease in the ability to patrol public spaces to deter crime and to investigate the crimes that do occur. There is next to no deterrent to petty crimes, like littering, graffiti tagging, and minor property theft, because those now go uninvestigated. As for violent crimes, the increase is due to the police’s inability to intervene before the situations escalate. Further, the homeless population has taken over the streets, even in the most populated areas, because there is very limited police enforcement of vagrancy laws due to the situations often being low priority. While this can sometimes be frustrating to the average passerby’s who may get hassled by members of this group, the bigger problem is that the energy of the city changing for the negative has made this already at-risk population even more at-risk. Before, for members of the homeless population, hanging out downtown just meant people watching. Now it provides access to drugs and potential physical conflict. Mental Health providers at the Howard Center, who do outreach with members of this population, have compared it to being at a keg party. There is also less crisis intervention for the mentally ill population, which has led to more fights, drug use, and overdoses.
Unfortunately, these changes led to Burlington having to try to undo the damage by re-funding the police, enticing officers to stay on with bonuses and raising the cap of sworn officers. Despite these efforts, it will likely take years for the city, and other cities that experienced similar results from defunding efforts, to regain the position and reputation of safety and peace that it had before. Not to mention that the defunding failed to address the systemic problems present in the police force. While this approach was good natured and had the right purpose at heart – protecting people of color and underserved populations – the experiment failed and read more like a punishment than a solution. While the actions of the police that caused this call for defunding were not in any way right, punishing the police force, even though may feel just, is a poor answer because it results more in a punishment of the citizens than the actual parties guilty of the mistreatment. A better approach to solve these problems is a reform on the accountability of the police. This would include things like individual officers maintaining their own liability insurance; narrowing the scope of qualified immunity; limiting when and to whom police are allowed to lie or mislead; and adding better training to police academy requirements on racial sensitivity, implicit biases, crisis intervention, and youth intervention. All of these policy changes have potential to help with police reform without having the negative consequences that defunding has on the community.
Emily Lambert is a J.D. candidate for the class of 2024 at Cornell Law School. Prior to attending Cornell, she worked in children’s mental health as a behavioral interventionist in Vermont. She completed her B.S. in International Business and B.A. in Spanish at Norwich University. Emily is a member of Cornell Christian Legal Society and Women’s Law Coalition, participates in Moot Court, and currently works with local children’s lawyers as part of Cornell’s child advocacy practicum. Her academic interests include health care law, juvenile defense, and general litigation.