Heroin: drug-related crimes use police resources

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(Host) Police officers are among those on the front lines of the heroin and substance abuse problem. VPR’s Steve Zind reports on how law enforcement agencies are responding to the need for increased drug enforcement.

(Zind) Drug trafficking and possession are the most obvious crimes associated with Vermont’s heroin problem. But authorities suspect many armed robberies, thefts, break-ins and violent crimes are also drug-related. Charles Kirker is chief of the Colchester Police Department.

(Kirker) “I know a number of years we looked at it and we figured that about 75% of our crime is the result of drugs in some form or fashion. Either because a person was on a drug that caused them to commit a crime, or because they were committing a crime to support a drug habit.”

(Zind) Even with heroin use on the increase, not all of Vermont communities are seeing its effects. Kirker says in Colchester, there are few heroin related crimes. His department spends much of its time dealing with traffic related problems caused by the community’s rapid growth.

Colchester is a bedroom community, without a real downtown. But residents of Rutland, Brattleboro, Barre, Montpelier, Burlington and other Vermont communities have been talking lately about the use of heroin and other drugs in their downtowns. Paul Devinger is the chief of police in St. Johnsbury. Devinger says his department devotes a lot of time and money to drug related crimes:

(Devinger) “Definitely it is taxing on the department resources, financially and regarding personnel.”

(Zind) The local departments get some help from the State Police Drug Task Force. The task force takes a regional approach to drug enforcement. Right now half a dozen Vermont police departments have an officer working on the task force. The federal government pays for the officer’s replacement. Police chiefs say the task force is doing a good job, but it needs more people.

There are sixteen people on the task force statewide. Captain Michael Jennings is the Special Investigation Unit commander with the Vermont State Police. Jennings says money is only one factor limiting the growth of the task force.

(Jennings) “It’s more than money. It’s people.”

(Zind) Jennings says because departments are having a hard time recruiting new officers, it would be hard to increase the task force staff, even with additional funding. The task force chiefly targets people bringing drugs into Vermont.

St. Johnsbury Police Chief Paul Devinger says he’s like to see the state also target smaller dealers working on the streets of his community. Devinger says the state needs to devote more money to working with local departments to fight the heroin problem. It’s a sentiment echoed by State Senator Jim Leddy who co-chaired the Commission on Tobacco, Alcohol and Substance Abuse Addiction:

(Leddy) “We don’t have enough cops and we don’t have enough resources to unify those efforts. If we don’t unify our interdiction and enforcement effort, we will utterly fail because drugs don’t respect boundaries or jurisdictions.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) Tomorrow in our look at “The Heroin Problem,” VPR visits the emergency room at the Rutland Regional Medical Center.

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