Brandon police organize war on heroin
BRANDON — Drug dealers are people, too. That is a cold, hard fact of law enforcement that is frustrating many Brandon residents as known drug dealers continue to operate locally.
With the Brandon Cares community group gaining momentum in the local fight against heroin and opiate abuse, Brandon residents are learning more about addiction and treatment challenges. But they also question why, if local police know who is dealing heroin in Brandon, more arrests aren’t made to combat the problem.
It’s called the Bill of Rights. Drug dealers are, usually, American citizens who are afforded the same rights as the rest of us. Without things like probable cause, corroboration or a proper search warrant, the police can’t just barge into the home of a suspected drug dealer any more than they can the home of a selectboard member, shop keeper or the local newspaper editor. Especially if they want to bring more serious charges that will ensure prison time and remove the dealer from the community.
TheBrandon Reporter sat down with Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell to discuss the challenges facing local law enforcement in the midst of the war on opiate and heroin addiction in Vermont, and in Brandon.
With Brandon Town Clerk Sue Gage and others, Brickell was one of the founding organizers of Brandon Cares. The goal is to engage law enforcement, school officials, taxpayers, social workers, parents, kids, clergy and medical professionals in the cause to help local opiate addicts get treatment and to draw attention to the issue.
Many Brandon residents who attend Brandon Cares meetings have said they want to see more law enforcement measures against local dealers. But Brickell said that while police can go into a suspected dealer’s home and find drugs, without a search warrant they will only come away with a possession charge. It’s the intent to distribute the drugs that carries the heftier sentence, especially if there is a large quantity.
“It would be a waste because the only charge would be a possible possession charge,” Brickell said. “You want it to be a charge serious enough that it takes that dealer out of the community and puts them away for a long time.”
Brickell said it is a frustrating situation facing making local police departments with limited budgets and a community to protect.
“It’s a double-edged sword because you’re letting ongoing activity occur in your community that is detrimental to the community,” he said, “with the hopes of having outside partners have a greater impact to get more serious charges. The more people you can tie into the case, the greater the impact you can have on the community you are trying to protect.”
In order to time an arrest with the known delivery of a fresh batch of heroin packaged for distribution to local addicts, the police need reliable information that takes time to gather and many hours to build the case, hours that take an officer away from patrolling the rest of the town.
“Targeting a drug dealer involves a number of facets,” Brickell said, including budget/overtime; personnel; the value of informants (credibility, number, cooperation and reliability); partnering agencies (Vermont State Police Drug Task force, FBI); and prosecution.
“It’s hard to get people to understand the different levels of informants and the different levels of prosecution between agencies,” Brickell said.
An informant is the most valuable tool the police have in building a case against and ultimately arresting a local drug dealer. But finding enough probable cause and corroborating evidence that will convince a judge to sign a search warrant takes multiple drug buys over several weeks, sometimes months. Probable cause means the police have “the facts and circumstances that lend a reasonable, prudent person to believe that criminal conduct is occurring.”
The informant has to be reliable and willing. The amount of heroin has to be substantial enough to warrant the investigation in the first place. Also, the information has to be timely, relevant and about activity that is ongoing.
“You can’t come to me and tell me you bought a bag from this person six months ago,” Brickell said.
There also has to be corroboration, meaning there have to be other sources or witnesses that can say they also bought drugs from the same person around the same time. Corroboration could also come from an officer who made a traffic stop on a person who was just coming from the suspected location and had purchased drugs at the location.
Many informants have been arrested for drug possession and are first, second or third offenders, what Brickell calls “low-level offenders.” They have options available to them to avoid jail time, including a diversion program, which avoids a criminal conviction, or drug court, which offers treatment for their addiction. And depending on the information they have, the suspect may be offered the option to work as an informant with police in exchange for the option to plead to a lesser charge. The goal is to keep the amateur dealers and addicts out of the court system in order to concentrate on the more serious dealers.
“Diversion used to be for first-time offenders, and it has morphed into first-, second- and third-time offenders,” Brickell said. “They are trying not to clog the courts with low-level offenders.”
BIGGER BUDGETS AND MORE BUSTS
But even when Brickell has reliable informants with good information on local dealers, he said his hands are tied when it comes to building a strong case. Budget cuts have reduced the Brandon police force to seven full-time officers, which put an end to 24-hour coverage in July.
That’s where the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force comes in. Brickell will often give the task force the information he gets and lets them pursue a case. The downside is that often that information leads to a larger, out-of-state drug ring that pulls focus from the local dealers, who remain free.
“Sometimes it is frustrating because the local informant’s information leads to a much larger, out-of-state investigation without any local arrests,” Brickell said.
But either way, Brickell said even the task force is under-staffed to handle Vermont’s war on drugs.
“Because these investigations take a lot of time, multiple purchases and informants, we typically partner with the Drug Task Force because that’s their main focus and they have the budget for it,” the chief said. “But they have three detectives for Southern Vermont and three for Northern Vermont. Six detectives for the opiate problem facing Vermont is woefully inadequate, but it’s all we have.”
Brickell said the Drug Task Force has almost as much trouble maintaining a viable budget as his local police department does.
“It takes five votes to pass a budget with the bare minimum here,” he said, “and it’s the same issue statewide.”
Brickell went on to say that he would love to have a full-time drug enforcement officer, and that unfortunately, the need is there.
“Ideally, it would be great if we had full-time staff here and we could commit an officer to full-time investigation,” Brickell said, “because there is enough drug activity in Brandon to warrant that.”
MAKING A LIVING
When recovering addict Pat Higgins addressed the audience at the Brandon Cares public forum on Nov. 6, he said something about the local dealers that took many people by surprise. He said that the local dealers expect to be caught, and their goal is to sell as much heroin and make as much money in the shortest amount of time before they are arrested.
Brickell was asked about that statement and he offered a slightly different take. He said the traffickers come up from Brooklyn, N.Y.; Springfield, Mass.; and other points south, deliver the drugs and leave.
“They do limit their exposure by getting local people addicted, then sit back and collect the money,” he said. “Very few dealers even know the real name of their supplier. They only know their street name.”
Brickell did say that the ultimate goal is to make as much money in the shortest amount of time, but he added a disturbing wrinkle.
“My take is that they don’t even think about being caught,” he said. “They’ve been up and back so many times without getting caught that they don’t even think about being caught. The lure of the money is more important than the threat of being caught.”
Brickell said local and state police are tracking some traffickers for the last three years, some despite getting caught and others without ever being arrested.
THE GOOD NEWS
But it takes more than law enforcement to beat the opiate problem in Vermont, and Brickell said that the Brandon Cares movement and the publicity surrounding local addicts and treatment issues has already made a difference here.
“Overall, I have noticed a decrease in the amount of drug sales,” the chief said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but the blatancy and the frequency I’m not seeing as much anymore.”
Brickell said he knows that some local addicts have chosen to get clean, some are in jail and some are under supervision that is keeping them away from a bad crowd.
“We’d see the same people we know were users going to three or four places a day and we’re not seeing that at all,” Brickell said.
The chief said that Brandon Cares and the community dialogue it has fostered has helped bring the difficult subject of drug addiction out into the open.
“What I have noticed about the Brandon Cares meetings is that more people in the community are talking about these issues and reaching out to each other more than ever before,” Brickell said.
Going forward, the chief said the combination of parents, clergy, medical professionals, former addicts and concerned citizens has transferred the burden from school officials and law enforcement to the community at large.
“It’s not the school’s job to fix this problem, and the police are not the answer,” Brickell said. “It’s everybody. Everyone can be at the table and have something to offer.”
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