Carter Neubieser: On public safety, we need to discuss addiction, not politics

This commentary is by J.F. Carter Neubieser, a member of the Burlington Progressive Party.

There’s been a lot of discussion about public safety and concerns raised about how we are addressing it as a community.

Let me start off by saying no crime is OK. It’s not OK to have your personal belongings stolen, or be fearful walking around our city at night. I believe we need a properly staffed police department to support a city of our size, and having grown up around a lot of cops, I understand that it’s an incredibly stressful, difficult job.

While no level of crime is acceptable, and even with an increase in specific types of crime, crime is lower now in Burlington than it was a few years ago. According to the Police Commission’s “Summary of and Comments on 2021 Annual Report on Traffic Stops, Arrests, and Uses of Force Report (note this summary document is from June 2022), police-involved incidents have declined from 2019 to 2021 by 24%. This continues a six-year trend, in which incidents have fallen by 42% since 2015.

The fact that we have seen a declining trend in overall crime isn’t without caveats.

Gun violence, overdoses, mental health incidents, homelessness, some types of theft, and other public safety concerns are increasing. 

At a recent Ward 1 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting, Police Commissioner Melo Grant drew the connection between increased rates of addiction and mental health struggles, and the increase in specific types of crime. 

As someone who got sober at 19 as a sophomore in college, that connection is obvious to me.

According to the same 2021 report, mental health incidents have increased 91% from 2012 to 2021, and welfare checkups by 47%. Since the start of the pandemic state of emergency, overdoses are up 72%.

When I was actively using drugs and alcohol, I hurt people around me and caused harm. I was severely depressed, at times suicidal, and had a constant obsession in the back of my head about when I would next drink or use a substance, and what I needed to do to make that happen. 

I can only speak to my personal experience, and don’t want to speak for others in recovery, but alcoholism and drug abuse can cause people, healthy in every other respect, to put using before their relationships, friendships, jobs, businesses, homes — everything and anything. Ironically, sober alcoholics and addicts are some of the kindest, most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met. 

Being in recovery, I can empathize with folks feeling more unsafe or concerned when seeing folks in the thick of the disease around town or on Church Street.

The question is: How do we address this, and in particular address the root causes?

For decades, the main approach in the U.S. has been to utilize armed officers and incarceration in almost all scenarios. That approach not only failed to reduce addiction, it created a plethora of other issues and exacerbated racial inequality. 

In 2020, many municipalities, including Burlington, attempted to change course. The mayor and both parties on the City Council passed a resolution that shifted funds within the city budget to decrease the number of armed officers over time through attrition (meaning that, as officers retired or left, we simply didn’t rehire some of those positions). 

Our city has invested in community service officers (an unarmed position that focuses on regular police operations like traffic control, parking enforcement, etc.) and community service liaisons (a social worker role focused on chronic issues like homelessness and addiction). These positions are tailored to address our community’s current needs, and they cost significantly less — lowering the cost on taxpayers and increasing overall capacity in responding to these issues. 

The Burlington Police Department’s budget is one of the few in Burlington that wasn’t cut during Covid — it wasn’t “defunded.” 

To me, this is the correct approach. It efficiently allocates resources to hire capacity in the areas we most need.

In response, proponents of a “tough on crime” approach went on a full-court press in the media, neighborhood forums, and on the campaign trail. They claimed the shift in resources caused a major crime spike, even though the facts didn’t bear that out. 

The Vermont ACLU condemned these tactics at the time in a letter to the mayor, saying, “This campaign of misinformation is evidently designed to instill fear….” The mayor and some of his allies chose to reverse course and join the chorus. 

The politicization of how we best build a public safety system for all residents has caused confusion on where to get unbiased data and has prevented civil conversation. We should assume good intentions with one another as neighbors and focus on solving the root causes of public safety challenges like addiction. 

We need to have a conversation about how we increase affordable housing and economic opportunity, explore harm-reduction strategies like overdose prevention sites, build community, and strengthen our education system and social supports for families.

I’m grateful that many elected officials, organizations and community members have been having these conversations, and that much of this work is in progress. It gives me quite a bit of hope for the future of Burlington.

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Tags: addiction, Burlington, Carter Neubieser, crime, crime rate, mental health, police, tough on crime


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