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Behind the Bullets - Part 1

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Gunfire has risen dramatically in Burlington in the last few years. Since 2012, there have been 64 gunfire incidents recorded by Burlington Police, with 25 of them taking place so far this year alone. So who’s responsible for the violence and what’s behind the sharp increase? Dom Amato combed through the data and spoke with city leaders about how they’re addressing the problem.

Gun violence across the country has spiked since the pandemic began in 2020 and experts predict this could be the new norm. In Burlington, an increase in gun crimes is coupled with a decrease in investigating officers. Despite the challenges, they’ve made arrests in eight of 13 shootings that resulted in death or injury, including the city’s four homicides. But it’s not clear that a smaller force is a factor contributing to a spike in gunfire.

“I know these events have shaken our community. We are not used to this level of violence in Vermont,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said earlier this month following an arrest in the Queen City’s most recent homicide. “There are broad societal forces that are driving violent crime nationwide and our city is not immune to those.”

Nationally, homicides increased by 30% from 2019 to 2020, which the CDC says was the highest in recorded history. And those numbers only appear to be rising in new data from across the country.

The same can mostly be said in Burlington. If you compare the five-year average to 2022, gunfire is up around 300% and police haven’t given a specific reason for it.

Burlington Police Acting Chief Jon Murad says many incidents are the result of old grudges, beefs, ego, or just agitation. There are some outliers. He says the murder in City Hall Park in early September may have been narcotics-related. “What we don’t see, is the fact that the drugs, or the transaction of drugs, or the trafficking of drugs, drives the violence. In fact, the violence seems to be driven more by interpersonal relationships in many of our gunfire incidents,” Murad said. Interpersonal relationships that Murad says now appear to be settled with guns rather than fists.

Reporter Dom Amato: What is causing that?

BPD Acting Chief Jon Murad: That’s a great question.

Murad says it could be a combination of factors and believes it has to do with people’s perceptions of and attitudes toward violence. “Do people decry this? Do people say that’s wrong and people that they care for and respect to tell them that it’s wrong, so that they don’t do it? Are there consequences when it happens so that people say, ‘You know, you’re going to be held accountable.’ And then do -- and they are? Is there a sense amongst their peers that, ‘Man, that was too far. You don’t want to do that.’”

Brandon Stroup, a criminal justice professor at NVU Lyndon, says the pandemic may have been a factor in the rise in violence. “Pandemic isolation, pandemic unemployment, a housing crisis that, we could ask, is that being addressed? And all of these different systemic issues are then creating desperation in people,” he said.

Desperation, Stroup says, that’s fueling the problem and creating a need to mentally check out. “Just a whole host of social issues that that I would argue are causing an increase in violent crime,” he said.

The gunfire is mostly homegrown, too. Nearly all of the suspects arrested in Burlington’s gunfire incidents live in the city or Vermont. And police have never used the word “gang” when mentioning the violence, especially when referring to a group of young men that at one point in the summer are believed to have been the cause of about half of the gunfire incidents.

“There were differences, and they started to settle these differences with guns, which is really unfortunate,” said Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, who is part of the New American Advisory Council, a Burlington-based nonprofit that is taking a hands-on approach to addressing gun violence.

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