Police battle rising tide of narcotics in Addison County

ADDISON COUNTY — Most Addison County police agencies continue to report increases in drug-related crime, activity that takes a lot of time and resources to investigate during a time when resources are in short supply.
That was the word last week from Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster and representatives of Vermont State Police and the Bristol and Vergennes police departments. Officials said they are particularly concerned about the quantities of contraband they are starting to see during busts and cases in which some dealers are trading drugs for weapons.
With a few exceptions, notably in Middlebury, sales of illicit opiates are also on the rise, according to police.
“The state is awash in heroin,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel.
In 2009, Vergennes police recorded one sale of narcotics, four cases of possession of narcotics and one case of prescription drug fraud. In 2010, those numbers went up to four sales of narcotics, 20 cases of possession of narcotics and one case of prescription fraud. In 2011, the numbers were up to eight cases of narcotics sales and 20 of narcotics possession, a trend that carried over into 2012. And thus far in 2013, Vergennes police have investigated 13 sales of illegal narcotics and 20 narcotics possession cases.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Merkel said.
Moreover, Merkel believes that drug activity is a driver of other local crimes, such as burglaries, thefts and assaults.
“(Drugs) is not a problem, it’s the problem, and it’s overrunning the state,” Merkel said.
Merkel pointed to statistics from the 2009-2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicating Vermont ranks second (per capita) in the nation in underage drinking; second in the nation in marijuana use; and fourth in the nation in use of illicit drugs other than marijuana.
With those numbers in mind, Merkel and many of his Addison County colleagues are questioning the Legislature’s decision this year to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and 5 grams of hashish. Instead, possession of small amounts of those substances will be deemed civil offenses that will carry fines.
“(Marijuana) is where it starts,” Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs said of larger drug problems.
He said that in every heroin case his department has dealt with, the suspects have also been using marijuana.
Bristol police have been working with residents in an effort to stem what has been an alarming increase in drug activity in that town. Gibbs provided statistics showing his department in 2011 investigated seven drug cases, five involving possession and two related to sales. Some crimes that year that authorities said may have been related included 52 thefts and nine burglaries. In 2012, Bristol police investigated 49 drug cases — 29 involving possession, four sales and 16 related to paraphernalia. Thus far in 2013, the department has initiated 31 drug-related cases, of which 15 related to possession, 12 related to sale and four involved paraphernalia. Bristol police have also this year responded to 23 larceny cases and two reported burglaries.
“We started to see this problem just before we saw some major budget cuts in our department,” Gibbs said. “Once we had our staffing issues, the drug dealers were dealing right on the park, and we’ve been hammering that pretty hard.”
But dealers are finding other local places in which to make sales, Gibbs cautioned.
“My concern now is that people don’t see them dealing on the park so they might think we’ve dealt with the problem, but I don’t think we’ve even nicked it very much,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said his department is currently staffed at the level (a chief and two full-time officers) that it was in the late 1980s. At the same time, Vermont State Police are working to fill numerous vacancies among their trooper ranks, including around four positions in Addison County, according to VSP Sgt. James Hogan.
“We are all a little behind the 8-ball, and we are dealing with a problem that is probably getting worse and not better,” Gibbs said. “This is not a short-term problem.”
State police have also been seeing a bump in many categories of drug-related crimes.
Hogan provided statistics showing VSP in Addison County dealt with 256 drug-possession cases during 2011, compared to 352 such cases last year. State police dealt with 125 drug possession cases between Jan. 1-May 20 of 2012, and the department has handled 154 such cases during the same timeframe this year.
Burglaries and larcenies have also been on the rise during the past two years, according to VSP statistics.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Hogan said.
He added VSP have successfully worked cases with local Addison County police forces, “but there’s so much of it out there, it’s tough to make a substantial dent in it.”
Investigating drug crimes can be particularly challenging for the smaller police departments, such as those in Bristol and Vergennes. Each department has a handful of officers who must respond to a variety of cases, ranging from the routine fender-bender to the thankfully rare homicide.
“Drug investigations and the processing and the paperwork and everything else takes up a lot of time and eats up a lot of assets,” Merkel said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult.”
With that in mind, Addison County’s police agencies have been sharing their resources on some drug cases. Merkel’s police dog Akido has proved a successful ally in sniffing out drugs.
State’s Attorney Fenster noted the docket at the county courthouse topped 1,000 cases in 2012 — the first time it did so in seven years. Many of those cases, he said, were drug-related. The Addison County Sheriff’s Department in fiscal year 2012 transported 337 people to and from the county courthouse to correctional centers. With more than a month left in fiscal year 2013, the department has transported 393.
“What I am seeing is an increase in the quantity of drugs that are being seized during these prosecutions,” Fenster said. “There was a time when it was almost unimaginable to see a state-level case with more than 3.5 grams of heroin; that’s a lot of heroin. We’ve just gotten two cases with well over 3.5 grams. Trafficking offenses — which on a state level were unusual to see — we are seeing more of them. The quantities out there are just tremendous.”
Police officials take some solace in efforts being taken at some area schools and town halls to hammer home the dangers of drugs and to catch youthful offenders before their activities escalate. Educators have agreed to make drug awareness instruction part of the K-12 program in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Addison, according to Merkel. And Valley Vista is poised to open in Vergennes a 19-bed residential treatment facility for young women dealing with substance abuse and self-injury issues.
Gibbs has led several community forums in Bristol — most recently on May 22 — to candidly describe the drug problem the community is facing and solicit residents’ ideas in addressing it.
Middlebury, meanwhile, has had a school resource officer, or SRO, in its schools for several years. Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said he believes the SRO position has paid dividends in preventing drug crimes. He also credits a veteran police force and a vigilant community for helping reduce major crime statistics in recent years.
Middlebury police investigated 38 drug offenses in 2012, down slightly from the 40 registered in 2011. Burglaries also dropped from 29 during 2011 to 19 in 2012. Frauds (including prescription frauds) dropped from 56 in 2011 to 31 in 2012.
“We are seeing a rather dramatic decline in victim crimes,” Hanley said. “There has been a greater deterrent effort.”
Hanley noted some of his officers have been on board for more than 15 years. As such, they know which cars belong in which driveways and have a good sense when something is amiss during neighborhood patrols. Middlebury residents in turn are not afraid to call when they see something suspicious.
Middlebury also has a full-time traffic enforcement officer, someone who is highly visible and therefore an added deterrent for would-be drug dealers.
“We are seeing a payoff for some of the preventative and proactive work we started during the 1990s,” said Hanley, who has led the force for 22 years. “It’s a positive trend we hope continues.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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