Battle against drugs strains small Bristol police force

BRISTOL — Yet another recent heroin bust has highlighted Bristol’s ongoing struggle with drug-related crime that has strained its small police force.
Despite dozens of arrests over the past 12 months, heroin remains pervasive in pockets of the small community, emblematic of a statewide struggle with opiate addiction and its consequences.
Police say an influx of out-of-town drug dealers has made investigations more difficult and time-consuming.
“There are a dozen dealers on our radar, but only three or four we have anything on,” Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs said.
Bristol police made their most recent arrest on Jan. 17, one they said is typical and part of a recent emphasis on combating drug-related crime.
They took into custody a local man suspected of selling heroin. It was the second arrest stemming from a September sting operation that also nabbed a Connecticut man.
 Jody Lee Cousino, 35, of Bristol, was arrested after officers were called to a South Street apartment for an unrelated incident.
Bristol police questioned Cousino about his alleged role in a controlled sale of heroin that police watched in September. After police read Cousino his Miranda rights, Cousino “admitted to his role and participation in past heroin sales,” an affidavit filed in Addison County Superior Court states.
On Sept. 19, Bristol police executed a search warrant at 14 South St. that resulted in the arrest of Terrance Devon Diggs of Waterbury, Conn., on charges of possession of heroin, as well as the sale of both heroin and other narcotics. The arrest was a culmination of an extensive investigation in which police used an unpaid, confidential informant to conduct a drug buy under the surveillance of officers.
The arrests of Diggs and Cousino are just the latest in a focused effort by Bristol police to eradicate drug crime.
Chief Gibbs told the Independent that drug activity and thefts in town peaked in 2011-12.
“Two years ago we were worse than most of the county, now we’re holding our own,” Gibbs said.
An increase of resources devoted to tackling drug activity in town has netted tangible results.
In 2013, Bristol police made 12 arrests for drug sales. Police opened two drug sale investigations in both 2011 and 2012, but made zero arrests. Officers in 2013 issued 28 citations for drug possession, four more than in 2012. In 2011, officers issued just five citations.
Bristol Officer Josh Otey said he has noticed a direct correlation between drug use and property crime.
“Rarely do they need to feed their family — there’s usually drug involvement,” Gibbs said of the motives for theft.
Accordingly, the increase in drug crime enforcement corresponds with a drop in property crime reports. The department investigated 12 burglaries in both 2011 and 2012, but just four last year.
Gibbs says the department has noticed that of late, more of the drug dealers in Bristol are from out of town or out of state, making them more difficult to track. This has resulted in increased cooperation between the Bristol Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in the state.
“A lot of dealers get drugs from Burlington or Rutland, some from New York City,” Gibbs said. He estimated that out-of-town drug dealers first started moving into town 8-10 years ago.
“All of a sudden there were new faces,” Gibbs said. “It changed the character of the town.”
Gibbs said that most town residents involved in selling drugs are known to his department.
“Once in a while, we get a name that’s new to us,” Gibbs said. “The new dealers are not from Bristol.”
Gibbs said that local dealers will often only sell to people they know, careful to hide their activity from friends and neighbors. Out-of-town dealers, on the other hand, will sell to anyone.
In addition, Gibbs said it is difficult to effectively police drug activity in Bristol because of the department’s limited resources.
The department covers Bristol Village, an area of about one square mile, but also assists other departments outside of that zone. The force consists of three full-time officers — Gibbs, Otey and Sgt. Randy Crowe — and one part-time officer. Gibbs said the department is the same size as it was in 1986.
“Some investigations are rather time-consuming,” Gibbs said. “It’s difficult for an officer to do follow-ups — there are a dozen dealers on our radar, but only three-four we have anything on.”
Gibbs said it is hard to calculate how many drug dealers operate, as the majority of users also sell, to support their own habit.
“Most users deal — there are more users that deal than users that just use,” Gibbs said.
Arrests are often the culmination of tens of hours of police work, using a variety of tools, such as audio and video surveillance, and volunteer confidential informants.
“Most cases are made with lengthy investigations using named and unnamed witnesses,” Gibbs said. “Often we work on cases for weeks and months, then get a search warrant.”
Gibbs said he believes the efforts of his department the past two years have made progress toward eliminating drug activity in Bristol. He said police have driven dealers off of Main Street and the town green, forcing illicit activity into apartments and back streets.
The chief said the current high-traffic areas for drug activity are South Street, the recreation field, the parking lot by Rite Aid and Shaw’s Supermarket, and Greenwood Cemetery. He added that younger dealers are known to work in the vicinity of Mount Abraham Union High School.
Gibbs said the amount of time his officers are spending on drug investigations puts a strain on department resources.
“Because of drug enforcement, we haven’t been able to do a lot of traffic patrol,” Gibbs said.
The result of this is decreased revenues from fines. For the third year in a row, the department is lowering its expected revenue from fines, a consequence of writing fewer traffic tickets. For this fiscal year that ends June 30, the department is on track to take in just $7,500 of a budgeted $15,000 in fines.
For the previous fiscal year, police generated $6,972 in fine revenue, less than half of the $18,000 the department budgeted for. These deficits in turn have to be passed on to taxpayers.
Gibbs said the addition of another officer would help the department better manage its workload, and credited the 2011 addition of Otey for enabling the force to be proactive, rather than reactive, to combating crime.
Gibbs posts press releases of arrests, often accompanied by mug shots, on his department’s popular Facebook page. The posts often generate dozens of comments from the page’s 2,000 fans.
“Good job, one more off the druggie list,” one user commented on a mug shot of Cousino.
“Another great catch, thanks for cleaning up our town!” another user wrote of Diggs’ arrest.
Gibbs said that while town residents are enthusiastic about drug arrests, he knows that citations alone will not put an end to the drug problem in Bristol.
“We’re getting pats on the back from the community for drug arrests, but we’re not foolish enough to think (dealers) won’t be back,” Gibbs said.
Vermont’s popularity as a drug market is a matter of simple economics — a bag of heroin that sells for $5 in Boston can sell for as much as $30 in Bristol.
Speaking to the Vermont Press Association in December, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn echoed a similar sentiment.
When asked about Vermont’s war on drugs, Flynn stated that current approaches to tackling the state’s drug problem are not working.
“Vermont is not going to arrest its way out of our drug problem,” Flynn said. “We need to make the community aware of the problem — awareness is the first step in getting a community response.”
In his state-of-the-state address Jan. 8, Gov. Peter Shumlin said the state’s approach to combating drug abuse needs to be more “common sense.”
“We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving on to our next conviction,” Shumlin told the Legislature.

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