Bill Schubart: Don’t defund police, fire and rescue, consolidate and fund them cost-efficiently

A Burlington Police Cruiser is seen outside City Hall on Thursday May 19, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Last Monday, VTDigger reported on a crime and punishment meeting at Burlington City Hall held by a group called The Keep Vermont Safe Coalition. I flattered myself by imagining that they had borrowed the title of my eponymous column in VTDigger, which of course I had stolen from Feodor Dostoyevsky.

The Keep Vermont Safe coalition is a mix of policing and law and order conservatives. The event attracted just over 20 attendees and was moderated by Ericka Redic, a conservative blogger and libertarian candidate for the US House of Representatives in Vermont, and Christopher-Aaron Felker, Burlington Republican Committee Chairman. Other panelists included Christina Nolan, a former US Attorney for Vermont and Republican nominee for the US Senate; Michael Hall, executive director of the Vermont Police Coalition; and Brady Toensing, a former vice chairman of the state GOP. Toensing headed former President Trump’s Vermont campaign committee in 2016 and was then hired for Trump’s Justice Department.

Chittenden County Attorney Sarah George, I learned, had been invited to offer “another perspective,” but declined due to a scheduling conflict. Two of the panelists relentlessly and baselessly attacked her on Twitter as a “murderer” with “blood on her hands” and blamed her for an alleged surge in crime in Burlington. Funny how they never mention escalating poverty, racial prejudice, untreated drug addiction, and mental health issues. One of the attendees reportedly wore a T-shirt that read “Black Guns Matter.”

How does any of this speak for constructive debate and policy change?

Ironically, and despite the recent shootings and murders in Burlington, long-term trends point to an overall decline in crime in Burlington. Pandemic isolation and rising poverty and homelessness have increased property crime and shooting incidents, but again, a comprehensive look at police crime data in Burlington shows a 30% decrease from a decade ago.

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However, ‘crime’ is a powerful political magnet, as are ‘immigration’, ‘educational curriculum’ and ‘high taxes’.

If you already know where you stand and have no interest in facts, dialogue, or listening and learning, such issues are effective for increasing your political bile and emptying your wallet.

consolidation and cost efficiency

I look at the issue of policing and public safety from a different perspective that’s rooted in Vermont’s traditional thrift.

Does the greater Burlington area, from Milton to Richmond and Charlotte, really need ten police, fire and ambulance services?

It’s the kind of question that gets people staring at their shoes during town meetings.

It’s like asking if mom’s apple pie is really better than store-bought pie. The citizen who questions budget requests from fire, rescue and police departments for new trucks, equipment and buildings is seen by some as somewhat unpatriotic. There’s an old joke that went… “Don’t resist requests from the fire department unless you live in a stone house.”

By my count, including campus security, there are more than twelve law enforcement agencies within a ten mile radius of downtown Burlington. There are about ten fire departments and a similar number of standalone or integrated rescue services. There are more than sixty different law enforcement agencies nationwide, such as the state police. That’s not even counting the local police departments. And there is precious little government oversight, licensing, or regulation outside of collective internal command structures. State Examiner Doug Hoffer’s recent report, pointing to deficiencies in the Vermont Criminal Justice Council’s police oversight and training, points to shortcomings in their effectiveness.

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“Qualified immunity” protects renegade or underperforming officers from accountability and allows them to be fired from one job for any reason and still be hired for another similar job without their previous track record being checked. With growing anger over this special concession to police, ostensibly designed to deter frivolous lawsuits, lawmakers in April agreed to “study” the matter — the usual response to the most complex systems or politically contentious issues. Be brave! To lead! complete tasks!

Meanwhile, the violent crime rate has remained stable, averaging about 750 incidents per year since 1975. About ten homicides per year average in Vermont, according to official crime reports, and the average number of home fires has been declining for some time, according to FEMA.

Showing promise and courage, Hinesburg and Richmond, two Chittenden County cities, have already made decisions to consolidate and split police services.

Questioning duplicate investments has nothing to do with the critical value of the services themselves. When someone suffers a heart attack, a burglary or a fire, we all want to react quickly. The question of service duplication, similar to that raised in health, education and social services, is about cost-efficiency, not value.

Could the greater Burlington area be better served by a single command and control agency for police, fire and EMS, with community outposts to enable rapid response. Does every city really need its own administrative hierarchy, communications system, frequencies, fleets of patrol cars, ladder and heavy ambulances, and stopping facilities? This is reminiscent of the debate about whether we need more than 60 school boards in a state with 88,000 students.

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By all reports, the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations is an excellent model for law enforcement cooperation between seven different police departments. Perhaps it could become a model for more sophisticated and cost-effective delivery of public safety services across the country.

The Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, the regional dispatching unit that now oversees several towns in the county, is another innovative example of a union ward that pools resources.

Police, fire and ambulance services are pillars of our small local communities and must remain so in deep rural areas, but in an area like Greater Burlington where ten cities and about 60,000 people are concentrated, why duplicate resources? The same applies to our other large urban cores.

As resources shrink and populations stabilize, we need to waste less energy discussing our tax and regulatory burdens and the size and scope of government, and seriously consider how we can achieve better outcomes in education, healthcare, social services and public safety can measure and achieve the resources we have.

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