Town Meeting 2016: Londonderry fights drug crime


LONDONDERRY >> This rural town of 1,769 people isn't the only Vermont community reporting a rise in drug dealing. What's unusual is the height of the wave of resulting burglaries and break-ins.

"The people of Londonderry have experienced a significant, steady and unprecedented increase in crime over the past several years that shows no sign of relenting," a nine-citizen Ad Hoc Committee on Policing writes in the municipality's annual report.

That's why a standing-room-only town meeting crowd voted Tuesday to sign an $86,000, 25-hour-a-week patrol contract with Vermont State Police.

Any Vermonter who heard Gov. Peter Shumlin's 2014 State of the State address or saw Northeast Kingdom filmmaker Bess O'Brien's documentary "The Hungry Heart" knows of the spike in drug abuse throughout the Green Mountain State.

"Addressing the issue of illegal drugs continues to be the most concerning and challenging issue," Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel writes in his city's annual report. "Eighty-five percent of our criminal cases have a nexus to illegal drugs. Almost all of our cases involving investigations in conjunction with the Department for Children and Families also have a nexus to substance abuse."

Londonderry has been particularly hard hit. With no police force, the remote town not only is fighting drug dealing (in one incident last summer, two residents were caught with 480 bags of heroin and 65 grams of crack and powder cocaine) but also numerous burglaries of homes and businesses, schools, the post and town offices, and transfer station.

In addition, the town reports more than a dozen unsolved arsons in the past decade — most recently a fire that destroyed a house last spring. After a crowd of 200 residents met with local leaders following that blaze, the Select Board created a committee to study policing options.

"It became clear early on in the committee's research that, for compelling reasons, the use of town constables for policing services was an untenable and unwise choice," the group concluded. "Another area of investigation the committee eventually steered its focus and limited resources away from was the establishment of a town police department."

"To be very clear, consensus on the committee is that this option may well be a long-term solution in some form," it continued. "However, establishing a town police department from scratch presents significant complexity. Moreover, organizing and installing even a rudimentary department would not be accomplishable within a timeframe that is responsive to the community's pressing concern with crime."

The committee studied proposals from Vermont State Police, the Windham County Sheriff's Office and nearby Town of Winhall Police Department ranging from 15-hours-a-week to round-the-clock coverage for anywhere from $52,000 to $350,000 annually.

Some residents who filled the Old Town Hall on Tuesday voiced fears whether such plans were too costly, would just bring them officers writing traffic tickets, or turn off tourists from nearby ski mountains.

"I don't think the State Police are going to do anything here," one elderly man said.

"You could have 200, 300, 400 cops and you wouldn't catch anyone breaking into a building," a second said.

"I would like to know this money is going to address the problem at hand," a third said.

That's when outgoing Select Board member Catherine Aragi took the microphone and announced her 24-year-old daughter was recovering from addiction.

"Everyone of us knows someone who's addicted," Aragi said to a crowd dotted with press cameras and microphones. "The whole community is falling apart because people are worried about burglaries, they're worried about arson. We need to address it now. We cannot wait. This is a springboard for us to do that."

Soon after, residents voted 95-67 for the $86,000, 25-hour-a-week Vermont State Police plan.

The committee unanimously recommended not only hiring State Police but also morphing into a permanent group to continue its work.

"This will help us better understand and address the root causes of crime in thoughtful, rather than reactionary ways," it wrote in its report. "It may also displace the swirl of rumor, blame and calls for retribution that seem to surface with each new crime."

"The committee knows that its recommendations will not be a quick fix, and that there is no magic wand to wave that eliminates crime and makes us all safe," it concluded. "And no matter how expertly a policing program is implemented, evaluating its effectiveness may be difficult, especially in the short run. It will require sustained effort."


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