Is Burlington, Vermont suffering a crime wave because "woke" officials cut police funding?
A genre of formulaic I-told-you-so punditry has taken root since the George Floyd protests. It goes something like this: First, find a city in which progressive political leaders payed some lip service to the “defund the police” movement and toyed with cutting police budgets. Second, point out that crime in that city subsequently went up. Finally, revel in the humiliation as those political leaders slowly walk back their reforms.
There are lots of problems with these narratives. In all but a handful of cities, funding for the police was never actually cut. In most, it went up. For most cities, the crime stats are more far complicated than the pundits let on. These narratives also don’t account for the fact that cities like Mobile, Indianapolis, Toledo, Albuquerque, Baton Rouge, and Columbus set homicide records over the past two years despite increases to their budgets or that they added more uniformed officers.
Finally, there are of course other explanations for the increases we’ve seen in some types of crime, most notably a once-in-a-century pandemic that had massive and still unknown effects across virtually every part of daily life.
The latest attempt to shame progressive policymakers comes from the Washington Post’s Charles Lane, who takes aim at Burlington, Vermont.
The progressive City Council in Burlington, Vt., thought it was striking a blow for social justice when, in June 2020 — just after George Floyd’s murder — it cut the police force’s authorized strength from 104 officers to 74. Morale plunged, many cops quit and a downsizing intended to occur gradually through attrition happened precipitously.
Now, the city of 44,000 has 61 officers, 53 of whom are “actively deployed.” According to a recent New York Times report, organized bicycle theft and open-air drug sales have proliferated. Police in October said there had been four murders since July, as opposed to zero in the preceding two years.
There’s a lot to unpack in those two paragraphs.
Let’s start with the murders. It’s already quite a stretch to say we should blame fewer cops because the city went from zero murders in one year to four in the next. It’s even more preposterous if you look at the details of the murders. The first was committed by a 19 year old against someone with whom he had apparently had a long family feud. The second was a domestic murder/suicide. The third was a man who killed two people, but only one of those was in Burlington. It was committed in a crowded public park “within earshot of numerous police officers, who had been stationed in the roughly half-square-mile downtown core that night as a show of force.” The final murder was a stabbing that police chief Jon Murad said "appears to have been bar-closing-beer-muscles and a fight that comes from that kind of behavior and ends up being something that turns into something a lot worse." So a bar fight.
None of these seem like the sorts of crimes that more cops on the street would have prevented.
Moreover, murders are up significantly statewide in Vermont. The entire state certainly did not defund its police forces. Overall, police budgets in Vermont have increased by about 6 percent since 2020.
As for that New York Times article, it quotes police and city officials as well as some residents of Burlington who claim that bike thefts, gunfire, and drug offenses are more common. But hard data on these crimes isn’t yet available, and other residents took issue with how the article characterized the city. In any event, the city hardly seems like a “a world of violence and despair,” as the Times described Burlington in a tweet promoting the article.
Lane isn’t the first to chastise Burlington down for “de-funding” its police. Last year NBC ran an article with the headline, “Burlington decided to cut its police force 30 percent. Here’s what happened next,” and The Daily Beast followed up with “This liberal city defunded the police. Now it’s paying cops to stay.”
You had to get to the 56th paragraph of the NBC article to find this:
It’s hard to tell whether crime has risen in Burlington as officers have left the force, in part because there are no solid numbers yet. The best year-to-year comparisons would come from FBI data — which won’t be available until next year.
For now, the Burlington Police Department has incident data for 2021, which show that the total number of incidents fell by 11 percent in the first 11 months of the year compared to the same period last year.
A year later, we do have the numbers 2021. They show that reported violent crime dropped in Burlington last year. Driven by property crimes, overall crime went up, but only a little, and only back to where it was in 2019, before the pandemic.
So what about this year? The data we have so far for 2022 are from the Burlington Police Department’s “activity reports.” They run through the end of October. Here’s what those reports show:
These graphs measure police activity, which is a bit different than reported crimes. So the presumed response from someone like Lane would be “of course the police are making fewer arrests and stops, because there are fewer police officers overall.”
But the charts above show that police activity was slowing down in Burlington long before the department began losing officers. And the slope on the first two graphs decreases after the police department shrunk.
One alternative explanation for the decrease in activity is less proactive policing due to low police morale. There could be lots of reasons low morale, from a “Ferguson effect” response to protest and criticism, to low pay, to poor leadership. I don’t know if any of that explains what’s happening in Burlington, but if it is, these are issues with police culture, and won’t be solved by simply hiring more officers.
We don’t yet have numbers on reported crimes for 2022, but local news outlets who spoke to local officials, activists, and civic leaders are more skeptical of the narrative from pundits like Lane. Here’s a story from 2021, when the stories about Burlington’s alleged crime wave first began to proliferate:
The Burlington Police Department issued press release after press release this summer.
But police data analyzed by VTDigger and separately by the ACLU of Vermont — which published its analysis in a letter Thursday morning — suggests that while the rate of press releases is increasing, the rate of crime is not . . .
The data shows gunfire incidents in the city are increasing in frequency: In 2016 there were two gunfire incidents; in 2021 so far there have been 12. But overall crime has been trending downward for years in Burlington, including violent crime specifically — such as homicides, robberies and assaults.
And here’s an article from last June, about the numbers to that point this year:
. . . overall, the volume of crime remains well below what it was a decade ago, having dropped by nearly a third since 2012. Of the crimes that did increase since the police cuts, most went up only slightly, and the majority were nonviolent offenses.
The June article also undercuts the argument that the decline in police activity is due solely to a decline in the number of police officers:
It’s true that fewer police are available to respond to calls — at a time when a growing percentage of those calls are classified as “Priority 1,” requiring an immediate police response.
But most of the calls driving that increase weren’t even to report crimes. Priority 1 call data show that cops delivered more restraining orders for courts and responded to more 911 hang-ups, vehicle crashes, overdoses and suicide attempts in 2021 than in 2020. Calls for many serious crimes either declined, stayed level or increased only slightly.
One study by a student at the University of Vermont found that the percentage of Priority 1 calls that involved genuine threats to public safety was at its lowest point since 2011.
More restraining orders, overdoses, and suicide attempts are certainly all bad things, and together they paint the portrait of a city facing the same struggles the country is facing more broadly. But of the trends listed, only traffic crashes could arguably be the result of fewer cops on the street.
Much of the narrative about Burlington’s alleged crime wave is anecdotal. And much of it seems to have emerged from a pattern we’ve seen in coverage of other cities that have implemented police reform:
— Police officials believe more cops always means less crime. So when the number of cops drops, they naturally assume the city must be less safe.
— Because of this, police officials repeatedly tell the city’s residents they’re less safe.
— Journalists report these claims, which makes people actually feel less safe.
— Other journalists then seek out residents who say they feel less safe and interview them, thus making other residents feel even less safe.
When the actual numbers come in, they typically complicate or undermine the idea that the city is, in reality, less safe. But this only comes later, once the narrative has been set.
It isn’t even clear that most residents of Burlington share the fears expressed to the NY Times (as opposed to, say, the most vocal). After the initial round of scare stories in 2021, state’s attorney Sarah George, an outspoken reformer, took a lot of criticism for the city’s allegedly exploding crime rate. This year she got a challenger in the Democratic primary, who promised to roll back many of her reforms. George won by 20 points.
Hiring more cops also brings costs — costs that disproportionately hit minority communities. More cops means more disproportionate use of force, more racial profiling, and more misdemeanor arrests, which leads to more people with criminal records . . . which leads to more crime.
Lane tries a few arguments to bat away these concerns. The first is rather pollyanna-ish:
Police must be not only more numerous but also trained, equipped and accountable, so as to promote maximum trust between them and the people they serve.
“I would hire more officers, but simply ensure that they are well-trained, accountable, and have the trust of the people they serve.”
Who knew it could be so easy!
Lane also reiterates the common argument that black people would disproportionately benefit from reduced crime rates. This is true. But minority communities shouldn’t have to choose between safe streets but with police harassment, mass incarceration, and regular constitutional violations, or living crime-infested neighborhoods in which they retain full array of rights granted to everyone else.
For this, Lane offers a dubious proposition: more cops now, less incarceration later.
Achieving this aspiration would entail a combination of many more cops and significantly less severe punishment.
Politically, it’s probably easier to sell the American public on the “more cops” part. Even so, if the beefed-up police presence came first and deterred crime, it could lead to less incarceration, due to the lagging effect of lower crime. Once crime rates decline, a confident public might be more willing to support more discriminate sentencing.
So if we agree to hire more police officers and swell the rolls and coffers of already powerful police unions in exchange for the possibility that once the increase in cops results in less crime (an outcome that’s far from guaranteed), the public might then consider the kinds of reforms that law enforcement groups, most notably police unions, have aggressively — and generally successfully — lobbied against.
Quite the bargain.
Finally, Lane expands his scope to claim that the United States ranks behind much of the developed world in policing per capita.
Many other industrialized democracies field more police per capita than the United States does. At 212 officers per 100,000 total residents, this country ranks in the 41st percentile, behind Germany, Spain and Belgium, among others.
Relative to its level of serious crime, the United States is even more of an outlier; it has one-ninth as many police officers, per homicide, than the median developed country.
There are several ways you might measure how a country commits resources to policing, but “officers per homicide” would seem to be one of the least relevant because the U.S. has a far higher homicide rate than most other developed countries. Lane of course would argue that this because we have fewer police officers. But that’s begging the question.
Spending seems like a much better measure of resources devoted to policing, because it accounts for the fact the budgets are fungible. Once you’ve allocated money to the police department, it’s difficult to control how that money is spent. You can say you want it to go to solving murders, but it’s difficult to micromanage spending in that sort of detail.
The U.S. spends about 2 percent of GDP on policing. That’s double what Ireland, Japan, Norway, and South Korea spend, 40 percent more than France and Germany, and 20 percent more than England. Our crime rate — and our homicide rate in particular — far exceeds that of all those countries.
More broadly, since the George Floyd protests drew attention to police funding, several studies and surveys have also shown that more spending on police doesn’t even correlate with — much less cause — less crime. There is some research showing that more police officers overall correlates with decreases in some types of crime, but again, most of these studies don’t factor the costs of additional policing, nor do they consider less coercive alternatives that don’t incur those costs.
Lane then blames underfunding for the U.S.’s comparative low closure rates:
The result is that U.S. police are 44 percent less likely than counterparts abroad to clear cases of serious crime. Lewis and Usmani emphasize that American police devote as much effort — per officer — to such cases; the problem is insufficient personnel . . .
It isn’t insufficient personnel. It’s how police departments allocate resources. The typical U.S. police officer spends only a tiny portion of on-duty time solving or responding to crimes with victims. In many cities, it’s less than 2 percent of a typical officer’s time on the clock. They spend far more time enforcing traffic laws, enforcing drug laws, and routine patrolling. Oddly, it’s the latter that “more cops, less crime” advocates say we need more of.
(For the record, despite diminished ranks, Burlington police have closed all four homicide cases this year and more than half the shootings since 2020 — both put the department far above the national average.)
Again, these aren’t problems that can be solved simply by hiring more police officers. They’d likely be made worse. More cops would mean more contacts between cops and residents, and there’s evidence that the more contact people in marginalized communities have with police, the less they trust them.
Would more cops on the street lower the crime rate in Burlington? I don’t know. But hiring more cops comes with costs, both tangible and less tangible. More to the point, there’s little evidence that overall crime is up significantly in the city, despite a police department that’s been halved in size. At most we can say there have been increases in some types of crimes and decreases in others.
I can’t prove that Burlington is a better or safer city with fewer cops. But there’s even less evidence to support Lane’s contention that the city is suffering because it has fewer cops — or that it would be better and safer with more.