Don’t defund the police, fire, and rescue, consolidate and fund them cost-efficiently

Last Monday, VTDigger reported on a convocation on “Crime and Punishment” in Burlington City Hall held by a group called “The Keep Vermont Safe Coalition.” I flattered myself by imagining they had borrowed the title from my recent column in VTDigger of the same name, one I had, of course, stolen from Feodor Dostoyevsky.

The “Keep Vermont Safe” coalition is a mix of conservatives on the issue of policing and law and order. The event attracted just over 20 attendees and was moderated by Ericka Redic, a conservative blogger and Libertarian nominee for Vermont’s U.S. House seat, and by Christopher-Aaron Felker, chair of Burlington’s Republican committee. Other panelists included Christina Nolan, a former U.S. Attorney for Vermont and Republican U.S. Senate candidate; Michael Hall, executive director of the Vermont Police Coalition; and Brady Toensing, a former vice chair of the state GOP. Toensing led former President Trump’s Vermont campaign committee in 2016 and was then recruited to serve in Trump’s Department of Justice.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney, Sarah George, was, I learned, invited to offer a “different perspective,” but declined because of a scheduling conflict. Two of the panelists have relentlessly, and baselessly, attacked her on Twitter as a “murderer” with “blood on her hands,” blaming her for a purported uptick in crime in Burlington. Funny how they never mention escalating poverty, racial bias, untreated drug addiction, and mental health issues. One of the attendees is reported to have worn a shirt reading, “Black Guns Matter.”

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

Ironically and in spite of the recent gunfire incidents and homicides in Burlington, long-term trends indicate an overall decline in crime in Burlington. Pandemic isolation and increases in poverty and homelessness have increased the number of property crimes and gunfire incidents but again a broad view of police criminal data in Burlington shows a 30% decline from a decade ago.

“Crime,” however, is a powerful political magnet, like “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 topics are effective at raising your political bile and looting your pocketbook.

Consolidation and Cost-Efficiency

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

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

This is the kind of question that causes people to stare 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 fire, rescue, and police budget requests for new trucks, gear, and buildings to house it in is seen as somehow unpatriotic by some. There’s an old joke that went … “Don’t oppose fire department requests unless you live in a stone house.”

By my count, including campus security, there are upwards of twelve law enforcement agencies within a ten-mile radius of downtown Burlington. There are roughly ten fire departments and a similar number of stand-alone or integrated EMS services. Statewide, there are more than sixty distinct law enforcement authorities such as the State Police. That’s not even counting local police departments. And there is precious little state law-enforcement oversight, licensing or regulatory body other than collective internal command structures. State Auditor, Doug Hoffer’s, latest report indicating deficiencies in the Vermont Criminal Justice Council police oversight and training detail shortcomings in their effectiveness.

Qualified immunity” protects rogue or poorly performing police from accountability and makes it possible for them to be fired from one job for whatever reason and yet be hired for another similar job with no scrutiny of their prior performance record. With growing anger about this special concession to the police, supposedly intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits, the legislature agreed in April to “study” the matter  ̶  the usual response to most complex systems or politically controversial issues. Be bold! Lead! Get things done!

Meanwhile, the violent crime rate has held steady, averaging about 750 incidents a year since 1975. According to official crime reports, Vermont averages about ten murders a year, and according to FEMA, the average number of residential fires has been declining for some time.

Indicating promise and courage, Hinesburg and Richmond, two towns in Chittenden County, have already made the decision to consolidate and share policing services.

Questioning duplicative investment has nothing to do with the critical value of the services themselves. If someone has a heart attack, a break-in or a fire, we all want a rapid response. The duplication of services question, similar to those being asked in health care, education and social services, addresses cost-efficiency not value.

Might the greater Burlington area be better served by a single command and control authority for police, fire and EMS, with community outposts enabling rapid response. Does each town really need its own management hierarchy, communication system, frequencies, fleets of squad cars, ladder and heavy rescue trucks, and holding facilities. It’s reminiscent of the debate over whether we need sixty plus school superintendencies in a state with 88,000 students.

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

The Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, the regional dispatch entity now overseeing several towns in the county, is another innovative example of a union municipal district consolidating resources.

Police, fire and EMS services are pillars of our small local communities and must remain so in deeply rural areas, but in an area like greater Burlington where ten towns and about 60,000 people are concentrated, why duplicate resources? The same can be said for our other major urban cores.

As resources diminish and populations stabilize, we will have to waste less energy debating our tax and regulatory burdens and the size and scope of government and seriously consider how we can measure and achieve improved results in education, health care, social services and public safety with the resources we have.

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