Bristol seeks solutions to crime problem

BRISTOL — At its third crime forum last Wednesday at Mount Abraham Union High School, Bristol public safety officials introduced members of a steering committee charged with addressing a perceived increase in crime and drug use.
In what was originally intended to be a gathering that focused on making decisions around potential strategies and steps forward, the group ended up electing to take a different route because public turnout was much lower than expected. Due to a communications error among organizers, a reminder email had not been sent to a list of past attendees.
Facilitator Kate McGowan introduced the steering committee, a group of 12 individuals whose professions span the spectrum involved in combatting crime, including law enforcement, psychiatric care, local government and youth educators.
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster, Vermont State Police trooper Kaitlyn Armstrong, and Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs fielded questions from the audience and shared observations from a law enforcement perspective.
State Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, also attended.
“I am very concerned, maybe even alarmed, by the statistics we see in front of us,” Sharpe said.
VSP and Bristol police statistics presented at the meeting showed burglaries rising from 10 in 2009 to 20 in 2012. Drug arrests rose from 13 in 2009 to 45 in 2012.
The percentage of heroin and opiate use in total substance abuse cases in the state of Vermont rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2012. Law enforcement officials indicated that they believed the rise in opiate narcotics correlated to the increase in burglaries.
When asked about age and demographic information for drug arrests, officials said that it varied depending on the drug. Marijuana activity, they said, spans most age ranges. They noted that, in general, the age range they had observed with heroin activity was early twenties to early thirties, but were quick to add that there would be many exceptions to that trend.
“For me, the scariest part of it is that heroin is a very expensive habit,” said Armstrong. “These are people, generally, without high incomes.”
She said that many users would cut their supply with other substances that resembled heroin, and sell it in order to continue their own habits.
“The inexperienced heroin users are the ones who would buy ‘bad’ heroin,” she said, adding that a big fear was that a younger user who didn’t know better would overdose from the toxic, cut heroin. “That is something I am very worried about.”
When Fenster was asked about how many people who have gone to treatment and turned up in court soon after for repeat drug offenses, his answer was, “too many.”
But he added that in his experience, the key was persistence.
While some audience members expressed a desire to “tar-and-feather” the town’s drug users and “drive them out,” most said that the community needed to come together and support those who were struggling through addiction and seeking help. The community also acknowledged that spaces in treatment programs are few and far between.
Sharpe said that he was listening for new strategies and creative ideas, noting that from a national perspective, the “War on Drugs” has been failing for more than 40 years.
“We as a community, a state and a nation need to come up with a better solution,” he said. “Right now we’re losing, because we haven’t come up with a new solution.”
The steering committee is committed to holding a fourth crime forum, McGowan said. She was hopeful that attendance would be higher next time, with word sent out through all proper channels beforehand.

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