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Public safety issues dominate Burlington mayor’s race

As topics involving policing, substance use and mental health occupy the mayoral race in the city, one point of contention remains a City Council police staffing vote that took place over three years ago.

By Patrick Crowley November 30, 2023, 5:13 pm

Public safety — the expansive tagline used to encompass a broad swath of topics, including policing, emergency services, substance use and mental health — was always going to play a major role in any Burlington election.

But in the race to be the next mayor of the Queen City, it’s only grown more significant.

In the last month alone, Burlington has seen a spate of high-profile crimes, including last weekend’s reportedly unprovoked shooting of three Palestinian American college students and an apparently drug-related double homicide two weeks before that.

The four declared candidates seeking to succeed Mayor Miro Weinberger, who announced in September he would not seek reelection, have been working to distinguish themselves and their public safety policies as party caucuses draw near.

They include state Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak — so far the only Progressive running in that party’s caucus, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 4 at the Old North End Community Center — and three Democrats: City councilors Karen Paul and Joan Shannon, as well as tech consultant and nonprofit director CD Mattison. The Democrats plan to hold their caucus on Dec. 10 as a virtual event.

In interviews, all four said they had heard directly from voters who voiced concerns about safety. But how each candidate would address those concerns differs and, particularly within the Democratic field, a wedge has emerged over a controversial police staffing vote taken by the Burlington City Council in 2020.

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis in May 2020, nationwide protests erupted to call attention to police bias and violence. In Burlington, protests centered in Battery Park called for the firing of three city officers who protesters argued had a pattern of violence. Advocates, including the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, joined in those calls and pushed for a 30% reduction in police staffing. The city council ultimately included such a staffing reduction in a racial justice resolution passed late that June.

Mulvaney-Stanak was the first entrant in this year’s mayoral race on Oct. 16. During her kickoff event in the city’s Old North End, the state representative and former city councilor articulated a preference for the term “community safety.” In an interview last week, she explained what it meant. Mulvaney-Stanak said the city faces “compounding challenges” that require a holistic approach and long-term solutions.

“If we only use criminal justice as a response, the problem becomes, our criminal justice system is overtaxed. It is not a place to send people who need treatment and recovery services,” she said. “It is not a place to send people who are not going to come out with a better economic outlook in their life.”

Mulvaney-Stanak, who once chaired the Vermont Progressive Party, was not on the council at the time of the 2020 police staffing vote. But still, she said that as she has campaigned she has faced some skepticism about her affiliation with that party, given its support, generally speaking, for reduced spending on police services.

“I think sometimes the Progressive box people want to put me in is that I want to continue to change staffing patterns of police and that that will make the city more unsafe, and it’s just patently false because I do strongly think that police have a strategic and important role,” she said.

Asked what she thought police staffing should be, Mulvaney-Stanak said she would follow the recommendations included in a 2021 assessment of the Burlington Police Department conducted by CNA, a nonprofit public safety research organization. That study recommended a total of 85 to 88 police officers, a number that includes police assigned to the airport.

The subject of police staffing has been one that Shannon has used to distinguish herself from Paul ahead of the Democratic caucus. In the June 2020 vote, the city council moved to cap the number of police officers at 74. Paul joined eight other councilors in voting for the resolution. Shannon was among the three opposed.

In an interview on Wednesday, Shannon said her vote reflected a “consistent support of police” and touted a recent endorsement from the Burlington Police Officers’ Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers.

“There isn’t anybody else in the race who has both voted consistently in favor of supporting our police department and actively worked and spoken against the defunding effort,” Shannon said.

Paul defended her vote in a separate interview. She pointed out that it focused on police staffing levels but did not change the amount of funding the department received. The staffing levels were included with several other action items related to racial justice.

“My thought at the time was that we were looking for ways to expand other aspects of public safety,” including social workers within the police department, Paul said. She later added that “there were significant racial disparities in policing and I felt it was very important that those voices be heard.”

Paul also pointed out that after the 2020 vote, the cap on police staffing was adjusted upward to 87 in a city council vote in the fall of 2021. Paul claimed credit for working behind the scenes and brokering a deal between the Democratic and Progressive wings of the council to revise the cap.

Paul said she would support increasing the police headcount again but said it should be studied further. The CNA report, which she called “valuable,” was conducted in 2020, with a final version published in 2021. She said it’s possible the city’s needs have changed in the meantime.

Mattison, the sole candidate who has not served on the council, has also been critical of the 2020 vote, saying that it sent a signal that Burlington was “open for business” for crime. She said she understood that the staffing vote came after the Battery Park protests focused on police conduct and was sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, but she said she didn’t think it should result in cutting the number of officers.

The candidates aren’t only looking back to that vote. Each has detailed public safety platforms on their websites.

Mulvaney-Stanak’s plans include building trust and working with experts on addressing the root causes of substance use and mental health problems, but says she also wouldn’t shy away from increased visibility of police to deter crime.

Paul’s website includes a lengthy “action plan” with specific proposals for short, medium and long-term policies that center on reducing drug crime, treating mental illness and building up the city’s downtown.

Shannon, who held a press conference on Tuesday on the topic of public safety, said the core of her plan calls for “both accountability and care.” The plan has four “pillars”: deterrence and prevention, treatment, housing and justice.

Mattison’s plans shared others’ visions of balancing public health and safety. She specifically called for more involvement of the court system, proposing something akin to a former Chittenden County court program called rapid intervention criminal court, which worked with non-violent offenders and was focused more on rehabilitation than punitive measures.

So far no Republicans have publicly announced a mayoral candidacy, but Christopher-Aaron Felker, chair of the Burlington Republican Party, said in a text message on Wednesday that the party’s nominating caucus is scheduled for Dec. 19.


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