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How Vermont's Law Enforcement Is Policing During The Pandemic

Police speaking on the radio station during the health alert, Covid-19 pandemic
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Law enforcement is adapting to a new reality amid the coronavirus, one that poses unique risks for officers and the public.

Law enforcement is adapting to a new reality amid the coronavirus, one that poses unique risks for officers and the public. This hour, we talk with police chiefs and officers across Vermont about policing during the pandemic, how agencies are keeping officers, civilians and suspects safe from COVID-19, and whether changes around enforcement and arrests could carry into the post-pandemic future.

Our guests are:

Broadcast live on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jane Lindholm: What trends have you seen emerge during COVID-19? Have you seen crime rates go down or increase in the areas where you work during the lockdown order?

BPD Lt. Jason Lawson: In Burlington, we were expecting to see some changes. Whether it’s a positive or negative change – we are still trying to feel that out and see what the data eventually shows us.

We have seen an overall decrease in crime trends for us. We’ve seen about a 17% decrease from the beginning of January 2020 to where we are currently. More particularly, for March to where we are today, we’ve seen a larger decrease of about 29%.

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We have seen some significant decreases in reports of assault. From March to the current time, we are looking at about a 47% decrease in that call type alone.

The Burlington Police Department saw a:

  •  17% decrease in crime trends overall from Jan. 2020 to May 2020
  • 29% decrease in crime trends overall from early March 2020 to May 2020
  • 47% decrease in reports of assault from early March 2020 to May 2020

Lt. Jason Lawson, patrol commander for Burlington Police Department

Middlebury Police Chief Thomas Hanley: It’s typical after any major event that happens – whether 9-11, Tropical Storm Irene – for there to be a “shock syndrome.” People stay home and we see a decrease in calls.

After about two and a half weeks, we started seeing family violence and anxiety-related things.

Now, we are full-blown going in the other direction. We’re seeing a lot of shoplifting and retail theft, assaults and things like that.

It’s really exploded in the last couple of weeks, coincidental with the importation of a lot of Agency of Human Services, 2-1-1 clients that have come into town, that have created a lot of those issues.

These are homeless residents that have been moved into area hotels from other parts of the state. We see social problems that go along with that.

It is attributable. They get cited – assaults inside the hotels, property damage inside the hotels.

There is a lot of anxiety out there, and that seems to correlate with disorderly conduct. People have a short leash they are on.

VSP Captain Garry Scott: We saw a pretty significant decrease in call volume for us across the state, in some cases about a 30-60% reduction in calls.

As this weekend hit with the warmer weather, we’re starting to see the call volume go up, and the arrests that go along with it.

Jane Lindholm: How did you adapt your policing practices during the pandemic?

VSP Captain Garry Scott: We instituted a tiered approach for how our officers were interacting with the public. For the majority of the crisis, we were in a “Level-Two Structured Response,” so we instructed our officers to only respond to the egregious calls, unless they saw something right in front of them.

Our members, if they saw minor traffic violations, they weren’t taking action. That has now changed since this last weekend. We’ve gone back to our more normal, proactive approach.

"We saw a pretty significant decrease in call volume for us across the state, in some cases about a 30-60% reduction in calls" - Vermont State Police Capt. Garry Scott

Jane Lindholm: It seemed that the State Police were more visible in many small communities during the pandemic than in the past. Was that practice about visibility, or about surveillance? 

VSP Captain Garry Scott: Both. Over the last couple of months, we’ve instructed our officers to be out of the office as much as possible, away from each other, social distancing and out in communities that maybe they aren’t always getting to, so that the public could see them, to help reduce anxiety and any thought of criminal intent.

Jane Lindholm: Michael Schirling, commissioner of public safety, said in one of the governor’s early press briefings that his staff was concerned about the possibility for domestic violence, child abuse to continue even if the calls aren’t coming in. Is that something you’ve been concerned about?

BPD Lt. Jason Lawson: We anticipated that there would be some lowering in certain areas. We did also think about how close-quarters for extended time periods, on top of all the other added stress families are going through, that there would be some spikes in domestic calls and disturbances.

When we investigate those, we do see sometimes that they are affecting children in the household, and how that relates to their being reported. We are not out of it yet and we are still monitoring our trends here. It’s important that people know we’re out there for them if they need to report.

Resources recommended by law enforcement and advocates include:

Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence

Vermont Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-228-7395. 

Vermont Sexual Violence Hotline: 800-489-7273.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.

If you’re unable to speak safely: Log onto thehotline.org, or text LOVEIS to 22522.

If you are in an emergency situation: Call 911.

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