Getting the Facts Straight on Public Safety and Policing

Vermont has a new top federal prosecutor, and based on his recent public statements, Vermonters who care about racial justice and police accountability should be concerned.

Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ophardt replaced Trump appointee Christina Nolan back in March. He’s kept a low profile, until a couple of weeks ago when Ophardt published a commentary in which he calls for more policing in Vermont.

Ophardt describes meeting with state law enforcement officials who report that violent crime is increasing, and law enforcement capacity is eroding” – a narrative that’s been cropping up in places like Burlington in recent weeks. He claims that “[t]he data backs up these concerns.”

Ophardt doesn’t mention attending any similar meetings with racial justice leaders or Vermont communities impacted by overpolicing, and has not publicly voiced concerns about other troubling data – for example, showing that cops stop Vermont drivers at a rate far above the national average, or that Black Vermonters are targeted disproportionately, year after year

Instead, Ophardt cherry picks FBI statistics from 2016-2019, “the last year for which data is available,” in order to advance alarmist messaging that a crisis is happening right now. But that blanket claim, widely reported, that “crime is increasing” in Vermont is contradicted by more recent data. 

For example, the Vermont Judiciary reported fewer criminal charges in 2020, with felony charges down twelve percent and misdemeanors down twenty-one percent. Likewise, the Burlington Police Department reported the total number of incidents on Church Street from June 1 to July 21 was 238 for 2021, as compared to 388 in 2017.

The fact is, Vermont has been and remains one of the safest places in the country, at the same time that we have prioritized investing in people and communities over policing and prisons.

So what’s with all the fearmongering? Unfortunately, these tactics are part of concerted efforts to undermine community demands for police accountability and better approaches to public safety – part of a predictable, institutional backlash to racial justice movements nationwide.

Take recent attempts by the Burlington police union and BPD officials to change the subject from police bias and impunity – where recent police use of force data shows Burlington cops still target Black residents disproportionately – in an effort to convince people they can’t achieve better outcomes by reducing the footprint of law enforcement.

That’s a false choice, and it’s at odds with what community members actually wantincreases in social services and more police oversight and accountability.

A growing body of evidence backs them up. Consider that from 2013-2019 the cities that reduced low-level arrests did not see an uptick in violent crime, but did experience a major reduction in shootings by police. The data shows an increased police presence harms people and communities in significant ways, with negligible impacts on violent crime.

 The recent law enforcement rhetoric harkens back to the failed “tough on crime” era, a period in which both Democrats and Republicans constantly sought to outdo one another to criminalize more people – particularly Black and Brown people – locking up record numbers in the name of public safety.

Vermonters now view those efforts as a colossal failure and a tragic waste of human potential and resources. Statewide polling shows strong, consistent, and broad-based support for criminal law reform, with four in five Vermont voters backing investments in community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Of note for the acting U.S. Attorney, Vermonters have voiced overwhelming support for prosecutors who prioritize new approaches to public safety, with three in four Vermonters more likely to support prosecutors who hold police accountable.

Vermont and its leaders have responded, making historic progress in reimaging public safety and creating a smarter criminal legal system, while investing in safer and more inclusive communities.

But we still have much more work to do, and now is not the time to go backwards. Vermont deserves a U.S. Attorney who recognizes that.

*A version of the post was published as an opinion editiorial by ACLU-VT Executive Director James Duff Lyall in VT Digger on August 22, 2021.