Police, apartment managers face surge in Middlebury drug crimes

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury police and managers of several local affordable housing developments are joining forces to fight what they say has been a recent surge in illegal drug activity.
Middlebury officials specifically identified John Graham Court as a neighborhood in which some residents — particularly young families — have been complaining about drug transactions.
“We are definitely seeing an up-tick (in drug activity); some of it is the economy,” said Steve Sak, director of property management for the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT). Sak oversees John Graham Court and eight other rental properties in Middlebury, Vergennes and Bristol.
The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday discussed the troubling crime trend on Tuesday with Police Chief Tom Hanley. Board Chairman John Tenny said the town’s public safety committee will solicit input from concerned citizens who are currently apprehensive about talking in the more public spotlight of selectboard meetings. He said the board will work with police, tenants and property managers to stem drug activity in affected neighborhoods.
“We are trying to stimulate some public awareness on this,” Tenny said.
Hanley noted his force has historically participated in regular meetings with property managers and tenants of subsidizedhousing developments to deal with concerns and try to prevent crimes before they happen. He acknowledged a recent lapse in communication with those housing partners, due in part to his department being down two officers. He also noted the tragic death in December 2009 of the previous ACCT property manager, Peter Coe, who had been the longtime point man on tenant issues.
Middlebury’s police department is now fully staffed and Hanley has assigned an officer liaison to the housing group.
“We are happy to help out and do what we can,” said Hanley, who noted he is aware of the drug concerns.
The challenge for police in such cases, Hanley explained, is that tenants have the right to invite into their homes whomever they want — and some of those guests might be up to no good.
“We can’t be substitutes for the landlord,” Hanley said.
Sak confirmed that some of the crime activity at John Graham Court and other complexes is being perpetrated by outside forces. He noted instances in which single-mom tenants have entered into relationships with younger men from more urban areas. In some cases, those men have taken advantage of their hosts and used their apartments as bases from which to sell drugs or engage in other illegal activity, he said.
And when the bad guys get busted, the single-mom tenant can also suffer repercussions.
“When they get caught, it’s putting their housing in jeopardy,” Sak said.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), also reported that some use syringes had recently been found near affordable housing her organization operates off Seminary Street.
“This is housing where there are some small children,” Montross said. “They don’t need to be finding syringes.”
She has asked tenants to be vigilant about potential criminal activity.
The renewed presence of a Middlebury police dog would likely provide an extra disincentive for would-be criminals, Sak said. Middlebury had such a dog until November of 2009, when Officer George Merkel — the dog’s handler — left to become chief of the Vergennes Police Department. Merkel took his dog, Akido, with him to the Little City.
Middlebury’s K-9 police officer was a program Merkel established and underwrote in Middlebury through contributions from local businesses and his own care for the dog. Hanley said it is unlikely Middlebury could re-establish a local program because of the up-front expense.
“It is enormously expensive to get this (dog) program going,” Hanley said, noting it requires, among other things, a specially outfitted cruiser and intensive training for the dog.
Officials hope that stepped-up patrols and better communication will help solve the problem. As part of that communication, police and property managers have developed a document titled “Best practices for dealing with drug, behavior and health issues in rental and emergency/transitional housing.”
The document suggests that property managers:
•  When appropriate, monthly walk-throughs of apartments, not only to make sure safety equipment (fire alarms, etc.) are working, but to check for evidence of unauthorized overnight guests and/or inappropriate activity.
•  Periodically distribute resident newsletters to provide reminders of rules and expectations.
•  Document all interactions with tenants where there are concerns/issues.
•  Offer short-term leases (one to six months), at least initially.
•  Establish law enforcement/tenant workshops for tenants suspecting drug or other inappropriate activity by other tenants.
Residents are also being asked to report any unusual cars in their lot; inappropriate behavior, such as fighting; and instances of tenants receiving many visitors who are not staying long.
Hanley is optimistic that with increased communication, visibility and cooperation with housing managers, the drug activity will decrease.
“This is not a contentious issue,” Hanley said. “We both want the same thing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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