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Candidates for mayor, city council spar over response to gun violence in Burlington

The fight against gun violence triggered a political shootout at a recent meeting of Burlington’s city council as incumbents and challengers went tit for tat in their zeal to get out front on this thorny conundrum.

This verbal free-for-all began with a couple of relatively modest questions from Charlie Beasley, a candidate for the city council who spoke during a public comment period at the end of the council’s latest regularly-scheduled gathering last Tuesday.

Burlington city council candidate Charlie Beasley.

During his time at the podium, Beasley asked the council for an update on a grant application that the city’s police department recently sent to the state in the hope of obtaining six new officers to oversee a more strategic approach to gun violence in the community.

The would-be councilman’s inquiry drew an immediate response from council member Jim Butler, who is also a current candidate for Burlington’s mayoral seat. In addressing the grant application, Butler reflected on a spate of drive-by shootings that had recently gripped the Burlington area.

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“A couple of days ago, we had another incident,” Butler recalled. “We had four people injured by gunshots, and two, I believe, were teenagers…It’s my belief that, regardless of the grant request…maybe we need to look at this this thing even if it’s a straight budgetary item.”

Butler proceeded to touch on the issues of recruitment and retention at the city’s police department. He observed that the department has many veteran officers who are on the cusp of retirement. He also reminded his colleagues about a “data-driven staffing model” that Burlington’s former police chief Jeff Smythe had implemented as part of his strategic plan for the agency.

“I am really concerned that the model has shifted,” the councilman added, “and that we may not be doing enough financially to give our team the monetary tools to achieve their strategic plan.”

Councilman Harold Owen, who is running for reelection this year, also reflected on the city’s problem with gun violence – as well as its potential connection to the police department’s staffing dilemma.

Among those running for Burlington city offices this year are mayor Ian Baltutis (center), councilman Jim Butler (who is challenging Baltutis), and councilman Harold Owen (far right) who is running for reelection. Also present are council members Bob Ward (far left) and Kathy Hykes (second from right).

“Experience is essential in policing without question,” he assured the rest of the council. “We can continue recruiting, but unless you have some retention to build experience within the system, the level of success is always going to be limited.”

Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis made his own foray into this conversation by pitching something called the “Cure Violence” model, which he said has achieved some success in Durham.

“It’s not just throwing more money and more officers at the problem,” the mayor elaborated, “but it’s looking at detection and interruption of those events.

“Young people are settling their disputes with handguns,” he added. “It used to be just fisticuffs in the back lot…We can throw more officers at that, and we can throw more people in jail, but we can also look at how do we change that community norm.”

Butler, for his part, was skeptical of the current mayor’s prescription for gun violence in Burlington.

“I think it’s important to note that our leadership team has already formulated a plan,” he told the rest of the council, “and I think we need to support them on the plan they’ve formulated.”

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