“Sobering.” That’s how two Burlington police commissioners described results of a survey by the police union that tallied a long list of complaints — and a desire by more than half of the cops who responded to find work somewhere else.
The survey should ring alarm bells for both sides of the police debate: Supporters of deep cuts may see more departures than they bargained for; those who want positions restored may find the ranks already deeply thinned.
At a police commission meeting last week, Officer Joseph Corrow, vice president of the Burlington Police Officers’ Association, shared results of the survey, in which 28 of the 50 officers who answered said they were looking for jobs elsewhere.
“We were the pinnacle of law enforcement in the state. People wanted to come here. People don’t feel that way anymore,” Corrow told commissioners. One officer he quoted said the department is the “laughingstock” of its peers.
The survey questions were open-ended and asked, in essence: Why are you still working at the Burlington Police Department? What do you want to see changed? What is the major reason you’re staying? What would keep you from leaving if you’re looking elsewhere?
The anonymous answers were brutal:
“The job used to be fun and occasionally satisfying and rewarding but now it’s constantly miserable,” was one response that Corrow read to the commission. “Most of that misery is being generated by the city administration/council … the most dishonest group of people I’ve encountered in my entire profession. I’ve given the best years of my life in this job getting kicked, punched and spit on only to be rewarded with a group of people spreading lies and hatred about me and my coworkers to further their misguided ideologies.”
Another said: “Last summer my daughter was terrorized at Burlington Parks and Rec summer camp by other children when she mentioned I’m a police officer. They threatened to light our car on fire and kill me and my wife. My daughter has had difficulties processing this and still will not talk to me about it.”
A third worried that “the smartest and most talented and experienced are leaving due to bad conditions … a talent and brain drain that needs to be remedied immediately. It will take decades to make up for this.”
Corrow told commissioners he didn’t intend to spread “doom and gloom” but to present reality.
“I’m not here to say that you’re doing a terrible job. I’m not here to blame you. I’m not here to do any of that. I’m just here to make you aware of what the officers that work at the department are currently thinking,” he said. “It’s almost every day I hear somebody I didn’t know is looking for employment somewhere else.”
The city council last year agreed to reduce the force by 30 percent through attrition, from a maximum of 105 officers to 74, in response to racial justice protests and after allegations that some officers — including Corrow — had used excessive force. The department is down to 75 officers, according to Deputy Chief of Administration Matthew Sullivan, who said 31 officers were looking elsewhere, three more than Corrow’s survey. The best-case scenario, Sullivan told commissioners, is that only 10 officers would leave in the next year; the worst-case scenario would be 20. That would put the midnight shift in jeopardy, Sullivan said.
That’s “where we’re at and where we’re possibly going. It’s definitely something that I’ve struggled with for the past year,” Sullivan said. The current level of staffing means the department is paying for an average of 15 hours of overtime work each day, not all of which is voluntary. One officer who worked an extra shift fell asleep driving home, crashed his vehicle and “thankfully … was not injured,” Sullivan said.
A consultant hired by the city will report in September on how the department conducts its policing and what resources it needs to do the job. Corrow told commissioners he is worried that too many officers will leave before then.
Commissioners’ reactions at last week’s meeting were mixed.
“I just want to acknowledge how hard a time this is for the BPOA and the officers, and I really appreciate you sharing that information with us. It’s very sobering,” said commissioner Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont professor who has studied racial profiling and traffic stop data.
Commissioner Melo Grant pushed back and said city leaders represent the people’s views. “What we need to do is have better community engagement so our officers understand where the community’s at, and then the community can understand where the officers are coming from,” Grant said.
“I do think there’s a legitimate conversation about certain things that do need to change that are considered to be systemic and issues of racial inequities,” Grant said.
Commission chair Jabulani Gamache echoed Seguino. “As a bartender, I think ‘sobering’ is the proper word for what we just heard,” he said.
On Monday, the commissioners met again and voted to recommend that the city council raise the cap on the number of officers by eight positions. It’s unclear whether the council will take up the proposal when it next meets, on August 9.