By Lisa Rathke
The recent shootings of three college students of Palestinian descent in Vermont’s largest city come as the small rural state, often ranked as one of the nation's safest, is grappling with a spike in gun violence.
Two days after the students were shot and seriously wounded during their Thanksgiving break, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said it “was one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city’s history.”
Statewide, Vermont has had 10 homicides and one suspicious death since October, including a double homicide in Burlington, Weinberger said. Burlington has seen 16 gunfire incidents so far this year, he said, adding that Vermont’s largest city is not alone.
“Many communities are experiencing an alarming rise in gun violence with recent shootings happening in Newport, Danville, St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Castleton, Leicester, Brookfield,” Weinberger said at the time.
The shooting deaths around the state this fall have taxed the short-staffed Vermont State Police, which has made arrests in two of them. The agency has a 15% vacancy rate — with 51 positions unfilled — and about a 25% functional vacancy rate meaning there are a certain number of people on family, military or other leave who are not available, said Vermont State Police Director Col. Matthew Birmingham.
“So that puts us in a challenging position. We’re doing more work — our calls for service go up every year — with less people,” he said.
Overall the country had a 6% decrease in national firearms homicides between 2021 and 2022, but Vermont saw a 185% jump, according to Vermont State Police Capt. Shawn Loan.
“So we went from seven firearms deaths in 2021 to 20 in 2022,” he said, adding that he did not have the current total for this year.
About half of the homicides in Vermont involved a firearm between 2017 and 2021, he said. Last year that rose to 86%, Loan said.
While authorities are investigating the shooting of the students as a possible hate crime, many of the homicides around Vermont this fall are likely drug-related and all are isolated from each other, Birmingham said.
“Vermont is experiencing many drug-related issues. Fentanyl is a huge problem for this state and the country, for that matter,” said Birmingham. “Our overdose death rate is climbing every year, which is a problem and something that should be on everybody’s radar.”
Statewide, Vermont’s homicide rate last year was about 3.9 per 100,000, compared with Los Angeles at 3.1 and New York City at 2.3 per 100,000, Loan said. Burlington’s rate was 11.2 per 100,000, exceeding the rates in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Springfield, Massachusetts, according to Loan.
“We don’t have enough ambulances to run, we don’t have enough homicide investigators because we’re not designed to have that high rate of violent crime. So it has a bigger effect,” he said.
In Burlington, the drug problem is spiraling out of control and it’s routine to see people injecting drugs downtown, in City Hall Park and in other places, said Andrew Vota, who has lived in the city for 25 years.
“It’s a citywide issue and people experience it in the downtown but they’re also experiencing it in their neighborhoods and it’s everywhere across the city and it’s scary,” he said of the drug activity.
Retail theft and other crime has increased and some businesses have left downtown.
Vota and Jane Knodell, a former president of the Burlington City Council, drafted a letter this fall that has been signed by about 1,500 residents in the city of about 45,000, that outlines concerns and makes recommendations.
“The increasing levels of violence, burglary, retail, automobile, and bike theft, unlawful public drug and alcohol consumption, drug dealing, graffiti, and other illegal activity are unacceptable,” the letter states.
The crimes come as the city's police department tries to rebuild its staffing levels. In 2020, the City Council passed a resolution directing the department to reduce its maximum number of officers through attrition from 105 to 74, amid calls in Burlington and nationwide for racial justice and to defund police.
More than a year later, the City Council authorized the department to increase its staffing level to an effective number of 87, but then-Acting Police Chief Jon Murad said it would take years to rebuild the department. As of Nov. 15, Burlington had 69 sworn officers.
“I think the fundamental problem is the reduction in the police force because that’s kind of the back bone. Because they are a deterrent,” said Knodell, who did not support the cap.
The city has added security guards to the Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian outdoor mall downtown, to help shoppers feel safe during the holiday season. Other businesses are planning to fill some of the vacancies, Weinberger said. The city also planned to hold a community public safety forum Thursday and has another one planned next week to discuss drug trafficking, gun crime, substance use and property crime.
After the shooting of the Palestinian students, suspect Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested the next day at his Burlington apartment. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder and is being held without bail. The shooting came as threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. since the the Israel-Hamas war erupted in early October.
Meanwhile, Vermont State Police are making progress on the investigations into other shooting deaths, Birmingham said, including that of a 77-year-old retired college dean who was shot while walking on a recreational trail in the small town of Castleton in October.
Castleton residents are still rattled. They don't think police are doing enough and don't feel safe walking on the trail, said Mark Brown, a business owner in town, who has organized a daily group walk Monday through Friday on the trail. An effort led by Brown has raised more than $25,000 for a reward leading to an arrest.
Some investigations will take longer than others, Birmingham said last month. "But I am confident that we are going to make progress on all of them that will end in resolutions for victims,” he said.