A pair of alleged assaults on police officers in Burlington, Vermont, over the past week have sparked new discussions over the availability of mental health services in the city.
Most people agree the system is stressed, and now, there are renewed calls for action.
“This is a case that cries out for resources,” Vermont Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin observed Wednesday of the case against Nicole Coolum, 35, who is homeless.
Griffin was reflecting on what many in the Burlington area and statewide have perceived as a growing challenge: the intersection of Vermont’s criminal justice system and suspects who are struggling with mental health problems.
The Burlington Police Department said Coolum already had more than 60 pending charges when she was picked up again earlier this week. She allegedly spat on a Burlington officer and kicked a correctional center staffer as they were trying to get her into detox.
“Without any sense of a plan in place to try to help her or to address her needs is discouraging,” Judge Griffin observed of a pattern of arrests — even on misdemeanor charges.
Coolum’s lawyer entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on newest charges, and Judge Griffin continued a different judge’s order that she be held on $2,500 bail pending further evaluation. The attorney said he would work to connect Coolum with resources including a mental health evaluation and support options.
Monday, another transient, 41-year-old Jason Breault, was also in court in Burlington. Police said it was for his thirtieth charge in 10 months.
Allegedly, Breault had a knife in the heart of downtown Burlington, despite a court-ordered weapons ban, and an officer suffered a minor slash wound trying to arrest him for erratic behavior.
Breault said during his video arraignment he was “preaching the word of God.”
Witnesses thought he was waving a weapon wildly, they told police. The object turned out to be a gardening tool.
Police said in addition to the tool, he had a small blade on him that he reached for while officers were attempting to subdue him.
Breault’s attorney entered not guilty pleas on his client’s behalf on the new accusations. He was ordered held without bail pending a weight of the evidence hearing scheduled for next week.
“We need change,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington. “We need both there to be consequences for these types of behaviors, and we need additional mental health resources so that individuals can get the right treatment at the right place at the right time — something that far too often is not happening now.”
The city’s police chief is now questioning if terms of pre-trial release are just too lenient in some cases.
“I don’t understand why we have conditions of release if they don’t mean anything,” Chief Brandon del Pozo said this week. “The reason Mr. Breault was on the street was because the conditions of release that were imposed on him were not taken seriously by the court when they were violated. It’s time we reassess that.”
Defender General Matt Valerio said most criminal suspects in the state, aside from those accused of the most heinous acts like murders where there is significant evidence, have a right to bail under the Vermont Constitution.
Valerio told necn affiliate NBC 5 News that the real problem is a shortage of mental health treatment beds, where someone may be safely held or evaluated.
“This is not a law enforcement issue, this is not a judiciary issue, this is a mental health issue,” Valerio said. “And I think we have to change the conversation.”
Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, said Tuesday that concern over how to improve the delivery of mental health treatment is something the whole country is trying to deal with.
“I think Vermont has been doing an admirable job with the resources we have,” Gov. Scott told reporters. “Could we be doing better? Absolutely. We’re working on that as we speak.”
Chief del Pozo said he hopes the state and city take appropriate steps to keep members of the public and law enforcement safe while enacting the additional mental health resources Mayor Weinberger called for.