Strike Three on Drugs? Maybe

BENNINGTON COUNTY - About eight months after state and local police carried out an unprecedented sweep, rounding up 48 people on drug related crimes in January, it was time for round two.

Now, after last week's sweep that netted 21 people in Bennington County - seven in the Northshire - the question is whether there will be more to come.

"The future of this operation is to be determined. One of the things that we're looking at is different avenues to maybe drum up some revenues to keep it going and that's a discussion that will need to take place between the representatives of the Vermont State Police and law enforcement officials here in Bennington County," said Chief of the Manchester Police Department Michael Hall. "But, I think based upon my conversation with Chief (Paul) Ducette (Bennington Police Department) and the commanders and the State Police we all would like to see this stay the course and I believe it will."

The Vermont Drug Task Force's Mobile Enforcement Team - a brain child of state senator Richard Sears (D - Bennington) and Doucette - was created two years ago in part due to the funding that Sears was able to procure in the state budget in the amount of $150,000 a year. This is the second year that the money has been allocated for that purpose, however it remains uncertain if it will remain in perpetuity.

"This is extra money to pay for the unified task force and having, in our area at least Manchester, Winhall Bennington, Shaftsbury, State Police all involved as well as the Sheriff's Department it costs money and it's not just the day of the strike," said Sears. "It's the hard work of investigation, making your case, getting a search warrant; it's all the work they have to do. So, this augments what's already there."

In addition, Sears said that there are a number of departments - Manchester, Bennington, the Vermont State Police and the Sheriff's Department among them - that have contributed their own resources to help conduct the operations, which can be expensive.

The first strike in Bennington County, which occurred on Jan. 16, cost $115,000 to carry out - $37,000 of which was spent directly on drug purchases that included heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, morphine, hallucinogenic mushrooms, opiates, prescription pills and marijuana as well as informant information, according to previous reports.

Over 120 individual controlled purchases of illegal drugs were made during the first raid. In the end, 68 defendants were arrested resulting in a total of 467 criminal charges.

This time around it has yet to be calculated exactly how much money was spent on the operation carried out last Wednesday.

In order to continue the drug sweeps, Hall said one suggestion of his would be to request financial assistance from some neighboring towns.

"Certainly it's unrealistic to think that Bennington and Manchester are going to be financing people to be working the entire county," said Hall. "However, that being said, I think there are other stakeholders in this process that could and may be asked at some point to contribute to that. Maybe it wouldn't be out of the way to seek some assistance from each of the towns in Bennington County to try to keep this program afloat because ultimately this is a quality of life issue that has affected everyone."

The strikes in Bennington County - which Sears pointed out occurred during different fiscal years - were not the only ones that took place throughout the state this year though.

In September about 80 law enforcement officers carried out Operation Northern Lights in Franklin County resulting in the arrest of 35 people - most of whom were low level street dealers, according to a WCAX report. A similar raid was carried out in Windsor County in the Springfield area resulting in the arrest of 33 people and another was recently conducted in Addison County.

As a result of the success law enforcement officials in Bennington County and the southwestern part of the state have had in the sweeps, Hall said that there have been other departments throughout the state that have expressed interest in collaborating on future raids.

"The State Police have gotten overwhelmed with requests from other areas to do similar type programs around the state so consequently they're pretty taxed manpower-wise and financially," said Hall. "They just can't support a unit like this in every county and every town."

Local law enforcement officials have stated that they would like to see the sweeps remain in place. Furthermore, they feel that the two raids that have been carried out have sent a strong message to drug dealers both in the community and the surrounding areas.

"We're hoping that the message that gets sent out there is if you want to engage in criminal activity selling drugs that we're not going to stop," said Lieutenant Reginald Trayah, Commander of the Vermont State Police Shaftsbury Barracks. "We don't want people to think that we did a sweep and we're done. We're not done and we're going to continue to press on this to let the individuals know that are out there pedaling these illegal drugs that it's not a smart play to do this within Bennington County."

Sears expressed similar sentiments.

"I think what it's done is send a strong message that we're not tolerating the behavior here," he said.


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