As the Acting United States Attorney for Vermont, I have spent the last few months visiting with local, state, and federal law enforcement partners throughout our state, as well as many of my prosecutorial colleagues in the State’s Attorneys offices. At these meetings, I sought feedback on how my office can better assist in addressing violent crime in Vermont, in particular violence perpetrated by firearms. Throughout the state, I have consistently heard two concerns: violent crime is increasing, and law enforcement capacity is eroding. The data backs up these concerns, and the ramifications for Vermont’s future are troubling.
Violent Crime in Vermont is Increasing
Violent crime is a significant and growing challenge for Vermonters. My office has seen increased violence by drug trafficking organizations, increases in collateral violence from individuals suffering from severe substance use disorder (i.e., convenience store robberies), increases in domestic violence, and increased violence involving individuals with mental health challenges. FBI data shows that between 2016 and 2019 (the last year for which data is available), Vermont saw an increase from 136.5 violent crime offenses per 100,000 people to a rate of 202.2 violent crime offenses per 100,000 people. During the same window, the prevalence of firearms as the weapon involved in violence increased by 36 percent.
Unfortunately, the number of officers capable of responding to this rise in violent crime is decreasing swiftly.
Police Recruitment and Retention is in Crisis
Vermont has a police recruitment and retention crisis. A recent report by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, highlighted the incredible challenge of retaining and recruiting the men and women of our law enforcement community. Vermont has seen a 14% decline in the total number of officers available for duty between 2018 and 2021. Of Burlington’s 75 police officers, 31 are actively seeking employment elsewhere. Ms. Morrison’s report estimated that by January of 2022, the number of full-time officers in the state will drop below 700 officers, a reduction of over 125 officers throughout the state. While 159 officers are set to leave policing in 2021, only 23 will have graduated from the Vermont Police Academy.
News reports from around the state reveal the reduction in available officers has already led to service curtailments, from Brattleboro, to Bellows Falls, to Burlington. In addition, staffing issues at the Vermont State Police have diminished levels of service provided by VSP to towns without dedicated departments, leading town residents to demand that selectboards establish new police departments. The reduction in VSP availability has resulted in an increase in reliance and demands on Vermont’s Sheriffs, who contract with local municipalities to provide patrol coverage, causing increased costs to municipalities. In Burlington, concerns about increasing violence have led the Burlington Business Association to pursue private security for Church Street and have prompted calls to increase police patrols in the commercial center of Burlington.
Ramifications of a Recruitment and Retention Crisis
In Burlington, a man with a long history of violent encounters has caused nearly 26 involvements with police so far in 2021, culminating in his arrest this month for aggravated assault with a hate crime motivation. Another had over 30 involvements with numerous violent episodes, culminating in his assault with a hammer on a good Samaritan trying to protect the intended victim. These cases are two examples of how our police officers continue to be tasked on a daily basis with repeatedly mediating challenging encounters in our communities, functioning as interventionists and mental health crisis responders.
Law enforcement work remains as difficult as ever, with police actions under close scrutiny, but with diminishing resources. Throughout Vermont, communities have been having necessary and overdue conversations about police reform, and an examination of the methods and manners of policing is warranted and justified. We want reasonable and rational police officers dedicated to serving their communities for the right reasons. But reasonable and rational people are thinking twice about whether to take an oath of service and join the ranks of law enforcement.
A reduction in recruitment and an increase in departures has a broader impact than simply the number of officers available to patrol and respond. Departments will be forced to reduce their numbers of detectives, transforming police departments further from crime solvers to crisis responders and crime documenters. A reduction in capable investigatory capacity will reduce the detection of sophisticated and covert criminal activity, from child exploitation to human trafficking to fraud. An atrophy of experienced officers will diminish training capacity and deprive departments of capable leaders.
Our law enforcement officers have sworn to protect everyone in Vermont from harm. I am deeply concerned about a shift to private security and a competition for the services of Sheriffs, as it would imply that security in Vermont will only be provided to those citizens and communities who can afford to pay for it. Vermont needs capable police who can protect vulnerable individuals, investigate criminal activity, and bring to justice those who undermine our communities. Quality, responsive, and compassionate public safety services must be available to all Vermonters, not just the highest bidders.
Ensuring equal access to safety and security requires a steady stream of applicants to law enforcement positions who are smart, capable, dedicated, courageous, and compassionate. While we debate how policing must change, we must also recognize the continuing need for high-quality law enforcement officers, encourage good men and women to join their ranks, and support those who serve honorably in a profession that requires great commitment and sacrifice.