Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling Says There's More Crime, Less Punishment
Kevin J. Kelley
Been burgled? Residents of 252 homes in Burlington experienced that violation during the first nine months of this year — 38 percent more than in the same period two years ago, when 183 break-ins were investigated. That total doesn’t even count what Police Chief Michael Schirling describes as a “spree” of burglaries over Thanksgiving weekend.
Statistics supplied by the city’s police department show that other crimes are also up substantially in the Queen City. Reports of thefts from publicly accessible vehicles and buildings increased 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively, in the past two years, while incidents of aggravated assault — attacks with the intention of inflicting serious harm — have increased 129 percent. There were 28 aggravated assaults recorded in Burlington during the first nine months of 2009; the first nine months of 2011 saw 64.
Those were the numbers behind Schirling’s alarming comment to state lawmakers last month that criminals are “riding roughshod over our communities.”
“Conditions on the streets are challenging,” the chief told the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee at a Statehouse hearing.
He repeats this assessment verbatim during a recent interview in his office on North Avenue in Burlington, then offers some reassuring news: The risk of falling victim to violent crime is no greater in Burlington today than it was a few years ago. Most assaults occur among persons who are known to one another in some way.
“Walking down the street, are you more likely to be a crime victim? No, you’re not,” Schirling says.
Vermont authorities agree that the growing availability of legal and illegal drugs — especially prescription opiates such as Oxycontin — ranks as the leading cause of crime. Increasing numbers of Vermonters have become addicted to these substances, which are diverted onto the streets by crime syndicates. “You can see it happening right here,” Schirling says.
He identifies the “unmet social service needs of functionally impaired individuals” as another key reason for the crime upsurge. But don’t think it’s simply a matter of insufficient resources, Schirling cautions. “Resistance to services is also an important factor,” he says. “We can’t make someone go into treatment.”
The inability of the state’s criminal justice system to provide “a credible threat of punishment” also contributes to the crime overload, which includes large numbers of repeat offenders, Schirling says. “We can’t convincingly say to someone that you’ll end up in jail if you continue acting this way. They know it’s not going to happen.”
This part of the problem is systemic, the chief suggests, insisting “it isn’t anyone’s fault.” But he does use the “revolving door” metaphor to refer to the cycle of criminal offense, arrest, processing, release and repeat criminal offense.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan dislikes the “revolving door” term, but he doesn’t dispute its accuracy. In discussing the criminal justice system, Donovan prefers to speak about another point of ingress, saying the objective of prosecutors in regard to nonviolent offenders “is to provide a window of opportunity for people to get sober, to get healthy, to get a job and education, to become taxpaying members of the community.”
His office and the courts no longer exclusively address crime, Donovan points out. “We’ve become the safety net and are being asked to deal with drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, lack of education and mental illness,” he says.
Schirling sees the cops’ role in the same way: “There’s always three digits available when every other option fails: 911.”
These shifting responsibilities partly reflect a harsh reality: There’s no room left in Vermont’s jails. The state sends about one-quarter of its 2100 sentenced offenders to prisons in Massachusetts and Kentucky. And in addition to having maxed out its in-state capacity, Vermont’s search for alternatives to jail time stems from awareness that incarceration just isn’t effective in deterring criminal activity. The state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. Two-thirds of Vermont prisoners were re-incarcerated within three years of their initial release, according to a study released earlier this year by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.
In other words, “we know that putting people in jail makes them worse when they come out,” says Margaret Jansch, director of the Chittenden County Public Defender Office.
And from a prosecutor’s perspective, Donovan offers this example: “When we have a person coming in for a third or fourth retail theft — we’ve tried probation, we’ve tried a short hit of jail, we’ve tried fines. Are we just going to put that person in jail for a long time? Fine, but they’re going to get out, and will the outcome be any different then?”
Consequently, the cops as well as the courts and prosecutors have put stronger emphasis in recent years on delivering services intended to prevent crime. That, after all, is the primary goal of policing, Schirling points out, gesturing to a plaque on the conference table in his office. It’s a runner-up award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for the Burlington PD’s success in “street outreach” work.
In partnership with the HowardCenter, cops on the beat monitor troubled locals with criminal records, seeking to intervene before socially inappropriate behavior crosses over to criminal acts. “If we can deliver immediate treatment when a person is willing to receive it, that’ll go a long way to achieving the goal” of preventing crime, Schirling says.
Donovan’s office is trying a similar approach in conjunction with Spectrum Youth & Family Services. He touts the promising results of a treatment-focused “rapid intervention” program for those whose nonviolent crimes are linked to substance abuse or mental illness. It has recorded a comparatively low 19 percent recidivism rate in its first year, Donovan says.
But the program is small in scope and its encouraging results may not be sustained, cautions Annie Ramniceanu, Spectrum’s associate director for clinical services. Most offenders in Burlington still meander their way through a criminal justice system in which up to a year may elapse between the time of their arrest and when they receive some sort of counseling or treatment, Ramniceanu notes. Components of the system “develop in silos,” she observes, explaining that the many facets of criminal justice often operate in isolation from one another.
A further complicating factor is that budget cuts can’t be blamed for the inadequacy of social-service intervention. Spectrum, for one, has enjoyed substantial growth of revenues in the past couple of years, says its director, Mark Redmond. He cites a $400,000 initiative, partly funded by Warren Buffett’s sister, Doris, that will result in the addition of eight treatment beds in Spectrum’s facility on Pearl Street. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has also added $144,000 in funding for Spectrum, Redmond reports.
The HowardCenter is likewise receiving increased assistance from the state, says Bob Bick, the agency’s director of mental health and substance abuse services. Even so, Howard has a waiting list of 258 persons for its methadone treatment program, which currently serves 328.
While Bick and Ramniceanu back Schirling’s assertion that drug-related crime, as well as drug abuse, is increasing sharply in Burlington, other sources well acquainted with the workings of crime and punishment in Vermont suggest that it may simply not be so.
Defender General Matthew Valerio, for example, says he has trouble understanding the statistics Schirling presents. He cites unpublished state data showing a decrease in crimes such as burglary and aggravated assault for the state as a whole during the first six months of this year. The caseload for the Chittenden County Public Defender Office, which represents almost nine out of 10 defendants in the Burlington-area criminal justice system, dropped about 8 percent from July 1 to September 1, compared to the same months last year, Valerio adds.
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Burlington may be an outlier — or the Burlington Police Department’s statistics may be inaccurate or incomplete, Valerio proposes.
Prosecutor Donovan suggests that Schirling’s data and that of Valerio may not be contradictory. Statistics from Donovan’s office suggest that burglaries have increased significantly in Burlington during the past two years, but they also show that the number of aggravated assaults has been steady — not up by 129 percent. The difference, Donovan explains, is that he records only those crimes that have resulted in arrests, while Schirling’s stats are based on reports of incidents to police, which sometimes, but not always, lead to arrest.
Donovan emphasizes that he is not challenging Schirling’s data. The chief meanwhile admits to feeling considerable frustration in the post he’s held for nearly four years. “Nobody’s ever happy,” the career cop says with a sigh. “Not the media, the politicians or the public, who we often see at their worst.”
So is he ready to start collecting the pension to which he’s already entitled? “Not yet,” the 41-year-old replies.
“Do your best not to scare people during the important holiday shopping season,” Schirling requests in an email message accompanying an earlier version of the department’s latest crime statistics. And he does have one bit of good tidings to offer: All types of vandalism have dropped 25 percent within the past two years. Taggers in particular have put away the tools of their trade — there were almost 60 percent fewer acts of graffiti spraying in the first three quarters of 2011 than in the corresponding period of 2010.