BRISTOL — A noticeable rise in armed robberies, burglaries and drug-related crimes have plagued Bristol this past year.
To identify the problems behind these crimes and find solutions, more than 100 citizens, law enforcement officials and social workers packed into the muggy basement of Bristol’s St. Ambrose Church on Tuesday evening. While police officers did not quantify the increase in local drug activity, those in attendance agreed that Bristol and Addison County have a drug problem, and it’s getting worse.
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs, who organized the meeting, said that drugs are not a new issue in Bristol, but their high volume and widespread accessibility is.
“What we’ve noticed over the last two to three years is a surge in drug crimes dealing with prescription medications and, most recently, heroin,” he said. “The reason heroin is jumping up right now is that you can buy heroin for cheaper than you can buy marijuana.”
Discussion at Tuesday’s forum ranged from stories of opiate addiction to a lack of Vermont treatment facilities to an overstretched police force. Local officials also shared many of their personal observations.
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Christopher Perkett told the crowd that many of the heroin addicts he’s seeing are younger than most might imagine.
“I’m seeing kids as young as 14-15 who are addicted to heroin,” he said. “And it’s not just poor kids.”
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel also issued a passionate statement, urging the community to band together.
“I dealt with a kid who was 16-and-a-half years old, and he told me ... he was selling cocaine to feed his (heroin) habit,” said Merkel. “Whose community is this?”
“Ours,” responded the crowd.
“Well then, you folks better start paying attention because drugs are taking your community away from you,” he warned. “Bristol is changing. Vergennes is changing. New Haven is changing. And we’ve got to work together to do something about it — and we’ve got to do it now.
“The answer isn’t just law enforcement. It’s working together as a community.”
At the meeting, Starksboro’s Michelle Norris and Bristol’s Melody Roell boldly spoke about how opiate addictions have afflicted their families.
For them, it’s been as difficult dealing with family members with severe addictions as with finding treatment facilities to help their loved ones.
“There is a waiting list, and it is very hard to get into (many facilities),” said Roell, whose son has struggled with an opiate addiction. “Kids are crying out for help because they’re addicted to heroin and they’re addicted to pills ... But there’s no help for them.”
Norris encountered a similar problem when she tried to get help for her daughter.
“There are not enough places out there. It’s almost impossible to get in,” she said. “The counseling service is overwhelmed. Everybody is overwhelmed. Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be an addict.’”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, who heads the House Health Care Committee, was in attendance, and he acknowledged the problem.
“There are indeed people who are desperately wanting to get into treatment and would take treatment if it was available to them ... and they don’t have that option,” he said. “That’s a failure of ours as a Legislature and as a community.”
Fisher has also worked as an outreach worker for the Addison County Parent-Child Center for more than two decades, and he has dealt with numerous families coping with drug addictions.
“Heroin addiction has been with us a long time,” he said. “It’s not a new problem ... but the difference is that it’s much more prevalent today. A strong majority of the families I work with are dealing with ... opiate addiction.”
But with treatment facilities full, law enforcement officials on Tuesday urged residents to use the legal system to put drug offenders behind bars.
The problem Roell has with this approach, she said after the meeting, is that she doesn’t think it works.
“Seeing my son in and out of the court system for the same offense over and over and over again, and seeing no result, angers me,” she said. “I think for certain cases of these young adults, jail is not the answer.”
Roell also pointed to another example of a man in his 20s who hasn’t been able to reform his ways after repeatedly moving through the state’s legal system.
“He’s a repeat offender. He has a drug addiction. He’s been through the court system several times,” she said. “He’s been in and out of jail. So that system is not helping him. Put him in a rehab program. Give people the resources so they don’t have to go back to the heroin or pills or whatever they’re trying to fill that void with. I think clogging jails with kids like this is ridiculous.”
Although Tuesday’s meeting was light on solutions, Chief Gibbs said the police would hold another meeting in a month to focus more on how to deal with the issues at hand.
In the meantime, he urged community members to send discussion ideas and proposed solutions to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim Quaglino, who founded the town’s police advisory committee, urged residents to call him at 802-453-5159 to discuss how to initiate neighborhood watch programs.
Gibbs also encouraged people to “occupy” the town green and other public spaces where drug problems have been identified. Running away from the problem, he said, is not a solution.
Furthermore, Gibbs said that the department is dealing with more crime than ever before, and it’s short-staffed because of budget cuts in 2010 that led to the department going from a four-person team to a three-person team.
The department is currently trying to close 72 open cases, ranging from thefts to drug dealing to sex offenses. Bristol police also conducted a 15-department survey (including the Vermont State Police New Haven barracks) of phone calls fielded per officer in 2010. The Bristol officers found they were fielding the second-most at 459 calls per officer. Waterbury fielded the most calls per officer at 529 calls.
Gibbs said that while Bristol isn’t the only town in Vermont with a drug problem, it’s increasingly difficult for Bristol police to respond to such a high volume of crime with only two full-time officers and a chief.
“We’re getting hammered out there,” he said. “When I started in 1986 we had three police officers ... we’re the only (county) department that hasn’t grown.
“Short-term solution: I’m going to need your help. Long-term solution: You as a community need to decide how to police your community. Frankly, we could do a better job if we had more staffing. I understand the concerns about funding, but we need to work out this problem.”
The Bristol Police Department can be reached at 802-453-2533. Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com