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Op-Ed: Police Racial Bias and Divisive Blame Strategies Harm Community Safety

The following is an op-ed by the White Affinity Group of General Assembly Social Equity Caucus for which Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak is a member. July 13, 2022

In an NBC5 story in May, Burlington’s Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said that Burlington was seeing an uptick in crime and “disorder” caused by members of “affinity groups” who knew each other but weren’t gang members. NBC then added footage of young men of color in the streets to illustrate his statements. Murad had not identified the ”affinity” groups as young BIPOC men, yet the NBC TV staff inferred Murad’s meaning and chose to make the story blatantly racist. Two weeks later, Chief Murad reported to the Burlington Police Commission that people of color are both the majority of victims and the majority of perpetrators of gun violence.

Murad’s statements use coded speech to garner support from white people by drawing on conscious and unconscious racial based fears that Black people are violent. This can frighten both white and Black people about crime, lead to more aggressive police activity, and more police racial profiling. What happens in Burlington is important to the whole state. Racial profiling by the police is bad for Burlington and bad for the state and local police departments. It sends a dangerous message to all Vermonters, Black and white.

At the May 2022 Police Commission meeting, a commissioner said Murad’s connection of crime rates and people of color makes life more dangerous for all people of color. Murad reacted with bluster and interrupted the Commissioner’s comments. In a later statement, Murad implied the “affinity group members” shared one thing – their race. Affinity groups have long been used by people who share a particular identity based on race, sexual orientation, language, gender or other often minoritized identity to create a safe convening space. The number of racial identity-based affinity groups are growing in our state as Vermonters work to learn and address long-standing systems of racism and oppression in our communities. Our affinity group is composed of white Vermonters working to support the General Assembly’s Social Equity Caucus. Some of us are legislators, others advocates and others community members from all over the state.

We call on Acting Chief Murad and Mayor Weinberger to stop using harmful narratives that are simply wrong. Crime statistics in Burlington actually tell a nuanced story that seldom receives our full attention. The most significant increases in reported incidents in Burlington since 2012 are those related to mental health (91% increase), welfare checks (47% increase) and drug overdoses (72% since the beginning of the pandemic). City data presented at the May Police Commission meeting reveal that the number of violent offenses actually fell by 13% from 2019 to 2020, continuing a 9-year downward trend of violent offenses by 28% since 2012. However, gun-related incidents, defined by the Burlington Police Department as any incident involving a discharge of a gun in a criminal manner, increased in 2021 and into 2022.

Our work lies in understanding crime statistics in the context of the pandemic and its impact on mental health, growing wealth and income gaps that have made Vermont unaffordable to many, and our relatively easy access to guns. Most of all, it requires us to avoid easy explanations that can too often fuel bigotry and hate.

Communities all across the state and country are rethinking what public safety means. It is a good time to take a look at communities with successful community based public safety efforts, who understand the community’s needs and refuse to use divisive blaming strategies based on incorrect data. We must address bias in policing, improve de-escalation police training, hire mental health support workers, and adopt harm-reduction opioid policies.

White Affinity Group of the Vermont General Assembly Social Equity Caucus

Patrick Autilio, Quechee Tiffany Bluemle, State Representative, Burlington Michelle Boleski Business Owner, White River Junction

Mari Cordes, State Representative, Lincoln

Jen Daniels, Business Owner, Landscape Architect, Colchester

Anne Donahue, State Representative, Northfield

Alison Ellis, Business Owner, Jericho

Mary M. Gannon, Racial/Social Equity Strategist and Educator, Winchester NH W. David Koeninger, Attorney, Burlington

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, State Representative, Burlington

Nancy Russell, Business Owner, White River Junction

Liz Schlegel, Nonprofit Executive Director, Waterbury

Heather Starzynski, Nonprofit Executive Director, Rutland

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