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The Crime Wave That Wasn’t

Burlington tried defunding the police—then came the backlash.

The vote to slash Burlington’s police force was held at two in the morning. It was June 30, 2020—a month and five days after the murder of George Floyd. Over the preceding weeks, demands for change in Vermont’s most populous city had swelled: bureaucrats were in tears at budget meetings, and the police chief was firing off increasingly panicked memos. Activists—arguing the Burlington police department was, as police departments in the United States tend to be, overstaffed and consuming too much of the city’s resources, not to mention brutalizing people in the streets—demanded a 30 percent reduction in uniformed officers. The city council voted nine to three in favor: the force would be reduced via attrition. By last month, the force had contracted by 33 percent.

The steady thinning of the ranks—from ninety-two officers in 2020 to sixty-one—as well as a $900,000 budget cut has now been repeated, repurposed, over and over again, in increasingly panicked tones, by the local and national press. The case of Burlington’s police cuts, after all, solved a major discursive problem that had emerged in the months after “defund the police” became, for a moment, a popular rallying cry. The conundrum was this: despite fearmongering by elites about the imagined impacts of reductions to the immense resources of cops in a country with some of the best-resourced police agencies in the world, no cities had meaningfully defunded their police. This made fearmongering more difficult. Enter: Burlington.

Vermont’s largest city has always occupied a special place in the popular imagination. When Bernie Sanders was first elected mayor of the city in 1981, the New York Times noted that the curious mayor (“a socialist”) made the “merchants quake.” Now, in a recent alarmist feature on policing in Burlington, the paper of record warns of a “growing, sometimes violent, problem with crime.” The paper is not alone: in December 2021, NBC News published an investigation into the “unintended consequences of that decision,” which Fox News adapted into a more blunt headline: “Vermont city deteriorates after defunding police, critics fear ‘racist’ label for speaking out.” In the editorial pages of the Washington Post, Burlington has become the poster child for progressive naivete: “Open-air drug sales have proliferated,” columnist Charles Lane wrote in November, justifying his craven call for cities across the country to hire more cops.

There’s no evidence, of course, that the police cuts in Burlington have led to violence or mass chaos or really much at all. The years of riveted media coverage of a city’s decision to take power from its police department speaks more to the enduring backlash to the summer of 2020—how deeply the threat was felt, and how intensely it was answered—than it does to any reality in Burlington.

Burlington’s aesthetics are often at the core of the stories that are told about crime here. The city of forty-five thousand, revived in the eighties from industrial decay, strives to be the picture of New England idyll. There are cobblestones and Queen Anne-style homes draped with ivy and steaming food stands that sell poutine and maple candies. The New York Times, in its November opus “The Bike Thieves of Burlington, Vermont,” interspersed photographs of porches strung with crime scene tape with those of pale sunsets, a flock of geese silhouetted against the evening sky.

Studying crime data is like staring into an inkblot, an amorphous cloud that can be distorted to fit any narrative.

In a 2002 article for The Atlantic, the journalist Ron Powers wrote of Chelsea, Vermont, a small town about an hour southeast of Burlington. The year before, two teenagers from Chelsea had crossed the river to New Hampshire, talked their way into the home of a stately couple—both professors at Dartmouth College—and then stabbed and killed both of them in their study. Powers was consumed by the surreality of the violence, the near impossibility of it in such a bucolic setting. “Americans want to believe in towns like Chelsea,” he lamented. Powers, like the propagandists who would follow him, attributed a baseless novelty to white, rural violence: a “new mutation,” he called it, in which “the murderers’ victims tend not to be the denizens of an urban war zone.”

Vermont is one of the whitest states in the United States, second only to Maine. It claims a “particular whiteness,” as the geographer Robert Vanderbeck wrote in his 2006 study of race and the state, a whiteness “discursively linked to notions of political liberality.” Vermont is not the land of the redneck but of Robert Frost and Norman Rockwell, who in the later years of his career became fixated on Vermont’s shire towns, which he rendered in his paintings as the pastoral American ideal. Through this prism, violence on Vermont’s streets figures as an incomprehensible aberration. There is a longstanding racial anxiety that runs through crime writing about Burlington, one of the state’s most diverse municipalities, where young, Black organizers have led efforts for reform.

In his Atlantic article, Powers quoted a Vermont resident, a crime investigator, who spoke with fear of Burlington, where he saw crime spiking: “Straight hedonistic drugs and music and misogynism,” he told the journalist. “I walk Church Street in Burlington and I see kids that are walking dead and know it. And that’s the biggest change of my lifetime in Vermont.” His words were echoed nearly twenty years later by an NBC News reporter: “It was on Church Street, Burlington’s busy downtown strip, where . . . the possible impact of defunding seemed most visible.”

And it was on Church Street where, in June 2020, hundreds of demonstrators marched, demanding change from the city. When a loose coalition of activists and organizers, led by an organization called the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, launched a campaign for reform in Burlington, they listed a 30 percent reduction in uniformed officers as a key demand. Yet the request was shorthand for a more powerful vision, “an immediate restructuring of the entire public safety apparatus,” reparations, change. The cuts were voted through. Much of the rest was quickly trapped in a bureaucratic snarl of committees, reports, and consultants. The cops left, but nothing took their place; an “assessment” that was intended to suggest alternatives was delayed for more than a year, and then proved decidedly uncreative in scope, critiquing racial disparities in the agency’s policing but recommending that the department partially reverse its cuts and hire more cops—advice the city has been trying to heed. The creation of a limited crisis intervention team staffed by social workers has been promised but has not yet come to fruition.

In this vacuum, Burlington’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, a Democrat (the right-wing party in Burlington city politics, which is divided between Democrats and Progressives), and police chief, Jon Murad, began to stoke fear. Soon, the police department began churning out press releases at a rapid clip (far more than the agency had ever sent out before, according to a 2021 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont) that told of gun battles, shootings, assaults, and murders downtown, of gang members taking buses up from Massachusetts—despite the fact that overall violent incidents were lower than in previous years. The local press was happy to parrot these taking points: “Weekend shooting incidents in Burlington raise new concerns over police staffing,” warned WCAX-TV, the local CBS affiliate, as the station rehashed police tales of “crime sprees.” “Don’t let crime epidemic spread from Burlington,” advised a column in the Vermont Daily Chronicle. It was no wonder, then, that unease began to stir among some in the city. The department had lost officers, but it could still deputize the press.

Now the city is implementing a million-dollar “rebuilding plan” for the department and offering $15,000 hiring bonuses for cops—alongside small gestures at reform. Overall police expenses have been restored to pre-2020 levels. Yet the fear has remained. “I think it is something that they created, and it got out of control,” Melo Grant, a member of Burlington’s police commission and a celebrated local hip-hop DJ, told me recently. It is hard to untangle legitimate shifts in perceptions of safety from the paranoia. This is the mayor’s personal Frankenstein, an unbridled folk devil, one he is constantly trying to rein in: violence is a problem in Burlington, he told the Times in November, a problem that, yes, warranted more cops—but no, he hastened to clarify, it was not hurting the city’s economy, which was still “quite strong.”

Coverage of the police cuts in Burlington has expended very little energy on any legitimate investigation of whether or not crime is worsening in the city; the media is uniformly uninterested in that question. In its reporting, the Times highlights a supposed epidemic of bike thefts over the last year, profiling a band of neighbors who have gone to sometimes questionable lengths to retrieve stolen goods, vigilante-style. Yet the piece devotes only one sentence to whether there has been a documented increase in bike thefts, or whether cops, famously terrible at clearing bike theft cases, are any worse now at resolving them: “Bike theft has long been a problem in Burlington . . . but it seemed to intensify over the summer and into the fall.” NBC was a little more straightforward, pausing for a moment halfway through its feature on Burlington’s police to admit, sheepishly: “It’s hard to tell whether crime has risen in Burlington as officers have left the force.”

Studying crime data is like staring into an inkblot, an amorphous cloud that can be distorted to fit any narrative; this is its political utility. There is always the specter of increasing crime to be seized upon, and there is always crime going down to be touted as a victory. In Burlington, officers are responding to far fewer incidents than they once were: overall police reports halved between 2016 and 2021, continuing a decade-long trend, according to the agency’s own data. Reports of property crime reached a five-year high in 2022, but overall violent crime—homicide, assault, kidnapping, and robbery—was at its lowest level in ten years. There were at least five homicides in Burlington in 2022, the most in decades, and shootings have become more common. But murders are up across Vermont, and indeed, across the country. A study by SUNY researchers in 2021 found that domestic violence calls in the city declined during the pandemic, and in the months after the police cuts, but noted, of course, that domestic violence is often underreported, made invisible in crime databases. There is no sum total, no definitive portrait, only a blank slate for the media, for that “enterprise of reassurance,” in the words of Janet Malcolm, to find solace and blame.

Any power that the trendlines hold is trumped by visceral anecdotes that serve as evidence of some nebulous problem: a split lock, a shattered window, a stabbing in the night, each one the bellwether of something worse. The Times’ reporting on crime in Burlington leads with bicycle thefts, but the article ends with something more sinister: a young man shot execution-style in a park, his distraught girlfriend beside him. Implicit here is the argument that these faceless bike thieves, the subject of the article, will soon, too, become killers, should they be allowed to continue unchecked — that poverty that becomes visible, should it remain seen, will turn into violence.

The discontent is imported, broadcasted, notching some victories, yes, but yet it has not yet won.

This logic is apparent in the bike recovery Facebook group that attained heroic status in the pages of the Times. The group is full not only of posts from residents who have lost their bikes, but of dozens of photos of suspected thieves, who are sometimes stopped and interrogated by members of the group, according to their own testimonies: a biker balancing several black trash bags full of tin cans to return for pennies at the grocery store; an older Black man waiting for the bus with a bike that was, suspiciously, “really nice”; a man sleeping on the ground with a “gorgeous orange Schwinn” beside him; a photo of the bike rack behind a new homeless shelter downtown. It is the appearance of poverty itself that is suspect, it seems, and for that, the media and the city’s powerful have provided an easy salve: well, the city cut its cops.

Sarah George, the top prosecutor in Chittenden County, which includes Burlington, is frustrated by the way the issues have been presented in the press, as she emphasized to me recently. George is staunchly reformist, often called one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country, with the typical priorities of her peers: expanding diversion programs and ending cash bail and so forth. Though there is ample reason to be wary of self-styled progressive prosecutors, whose job is to lock people up no matter their appetite for bail reform, George is at least refreshingly lucid when she speaks, sometimes in almost hushed tones, about her discontent with the criminal legal system. The reactionary local panic, she said, “is fueled by the media, and then occasionally tempered by the media, and then fueled.” After she spoke to a Times reporter about the impact of rapidly worsening homelessness, of the lack of affordable housing, on crime in the city, and the issue was excluded from the story wholesale, she took to Twitter to say she was “astounded.”

“We have, for example, this uptick in people stealing cars,” she told me (this is another highlight of crime coverage in Burlington). “What I see a lot as a prosecutor getting those cases is that people are stealing them to live in them. And—what am I going to do about that? What does accountability look like when someone is stealing a car to live in it?” How to appease the Facebook vigilantes? There may be a reactionary backlash in Burlington, but I do not yet see a popular one: George, despite criticism from a mildly tough-on-crime challenger, won her primary by twenty percentage points and faced no opponent in the general election. Progressive city councilors have won elections defending the police cuts. The discontent is imported, broadcasted, notching some victories, yes, but yet it has not yet won, and, for now, the cops have not yet returned. Their absence has become a sounding board, a tool, for those interested in preserving the status quo, but it was not meant to be. City leadership promised something new in their absence—not a lukewarm critique by high-paid consultants, not a social worker or two, but a sincere challenge to the institution of policing. For that, we are still waiting.