Carter Neubeiser: In terms of public safety, we need to discuss addiction, not politics

Carter Neubeiser: In terms of public safety, we need to discuss addiction, not politics

This comment was written by JF Carter Neubeser, Burlington Progressive Party Member.

There has been a lot of discussion about public safety and concerns raised about how we as a society should address it.

Let me start by saying it’s okay not to have a crime. It is not okay to have your personal belongings stolen, or to be afraid to walk around our city at night. I believe we need a properly equipped police department to support a city of our size, and after growing up around so many cops, I realized it was a very stressful and challenging task.

Although no level of crime is accepted, and even with certain types of crime increasing, crime is now lower in Burlington than it was a few years ago. According to “Summary and Comments of the 2021 Annual Report on Traffic Stops, Arrests, and Uses of Force” (note that this summary document is from June 2022), police-related accidents decreased from 2019 to 2021 by 24%. This trend continues for six years, with accidents down 42% since 2015.

The fact that we have seen a downward trend in crime in general is not without caveats.

Gun violence, overdose, mental health incidents, homelessness, some types of theft, and other public safety concerns are on the rise.

At a recent Neighborhood Planning Association meeting in Ward One, Police Commissioner Milo Grant drew attention to the relationship between increased addiction rates and mental health struggles, and the increase in certain types of crime.

As someone who became sober at the age of 19 when he was a sophomore in college, this connection is clear to me.

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

When I was actively taking drugs and alcohol, I was hurting people around me and causing harm. I was severely depressed, at times suicidal, and had a constant obsession in the back of my head about when I was going to drink or use a substance next, and what I should do to make it happen.

I can only speak from my personal experience, and I don’t want to speak for others in my recovery, but alcoholism and drug abuse can cause people, who are otherwise healthy, to take advantage of their relationships, friendships, jobs, work, homes – everything and anything. Ironically, die-hard alcoholics and addicts are some of the kindest and most emotionally intelligent people I have ever met.

In my recovery, I can sympathize with people who feel more insecure or anxious seeing people in the midst of illness across 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 United States has been to use armed officers and imprisonment in almost all scenarios. Not only has this approach failed to reduce addiction, but it has created a slew of other issues and exacerbated racial inequality.

In 2020, several municipalities, including Burlington, attempted to change course. The mayor and both sides of the city council passed a resolution about funneling money within the city budget to reduce the number of armed officers over time through attrition (meaning, with officers retired or left, we simply didn’t rehir some of these 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 officers (a social worker role that focuses on chronic issues like homelessness and addiction). These functions are designed to meet the current needs of our society, and they cost much less – lowering the cost to taxpayers and increasing the overall ability to respond to these issues.

The Burlington Police Department’s budget is one of the few in Burlington that hasn’t been cut during Covid – it hasn’t been ‘defunded’.

For me, this is the right approach. Allocates resources efficiently to employ capabilities in areas where we need it most.

In response, proponents of a “strict on crime” approach went to full press in the media, neighborhood forums, and on the campaign trail. They claimed that the shift in resources caused crime rates to rise, although the facts did not prove this.

The Vermont Civil Liberties Union condemned these tactics at the time in a letter to the mayor, saying, “This disinformation campaign is clearly intended to sow fear…” The mayor and some of his allies chose to reverse course and join the chorus.

The politicization of the best way to build a public safety system for all residents has caused confusion about where to get unbiased data and prevented civil conversations. We must assume goodwill with each other as neighbors and focus on solving the root causes of public safety challenges such as addiction.

We need to have a conversation about how to increase affordable housing and economic opportunity, and explore harm reduction strategies such as overdose prevention sites, community building, and strengthening our education system and social support for families.

I am grateful that so many elected officials, organizations, and community members have had these conversations, and that much of this work is underway. It gives me a great deal of hope for Burlington’s future.

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Tags: addiction, burlington, carter newbie, crime, crime rate, mental health, police, tough on crime


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