Published: Feb. 6, 2024
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Public Safety is the number one issue Burlington candidates are addressing leading up to next month’s Town Meeting Day elections.
New leadership is coming at a challenging time in Burlington’s history, with an unprecedented drug crisis, persistent crime, and a police department in transition.
“I think we have to really recognize there’s a lot of complexities that go into the challenges facing Burlington and what is making us safe or not,” said Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, the Progressive candidate for Burlington mayor. She wants to put a bigger focus on evidence-based strategies like positioning police in hotspots for crime, in the hopes of deterring bad behavior.
“It is not a likely prison sentence or fine that’s somewhere buried in state statute that will determine level change people’s behaviors.”
Democrat Joan Shannon agrees that hotspot policing can work but says the police don’t have the resources, something she says she can help with. “I am in the best position to recruit people for that job,” she said.
Both candidates agree that more officers -- armed and unarmed -- are needed. The city’s cap is 87 officers and the most recent data available shows there are 69.
Mulvaney-Stanak says she wants to evaluate the ranks to see how resources are being used and be realistic about the hiring challenges police departments face across the region, saying bringing on more officers may be a challenge. “The city is facing a budget shortfall and so we have to use public dollars and steward that in a responsible way,” she said.
Shannon says having 87 officers would be beneficial to cut down on long shifts officers are assigned to but she says there is no silver bullet to the wide range of issues downtown.
“I need to be open to listening to people who have a different viewpoint than I have because I want solutions. I don’t want it to be just my way or the highway. That’s not what I’m looking for. But I want our community to be safe. I want our children walking to school to feel safe and they don’t today so something has to change,” she said.
While the candidates largely agree on a need to address public safety, they differ in their approach to the drug crisis. Mulvaney-Stanak says the discarded syringes and public drug consumption is a symptom of how toxic the drugs are, that people do not want to be alone in case of an overdose.
Reporter Katharine Huntley: Do you believe any of these people should be arrested who are doing unsafe behaviors repeatedly?
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak: No. To be super clear, no. Because jail is not treatment. Jail is where people get sent if people get arrested for openly using drugs. What will happen is we put them into a failed system that has a failed health care system within it.
Both candidates say overdose prevention centers could be a solution, giving people struggling with addiction a safe place to use off the streets. But when it comes to enforcement, Mulvaney Stanak says arresting people who are openly using could do more harm than good.
It’s something Shannon doesn’t necessarily agree with.
Reporter Katharine Huntley: Do you think we should be arresting people who are openly using drugs in downtown Burlington?
Joan Shannon: Yes, I think people should either have their stash taken or be arrested. That doesn’t mean that they will be incarcerated, but we need to interrupt their day if they are openly using and dealing drugs in our public spaces.
Later this week we’ll also be speaking with the two independents, Chris Haessly and Will Emmons, who have also joined the race.