“Grit and determination” were the words used by Rutland Police Chief James Baker on Monday to describe the response to the metastasizing drug problem afflicting the region, and the state.
He was speaking at a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee where Sen. Patrick Leahy was present to hear about Rutland’s troubles and its answer to its troubles.
New attention to the problem has put the state in the spotlight. Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision in January to devote his State of the State address to the issue of drug abuse caught the attention of the national media. When The New York Times placed Rutland on its front page, the world noticed. Now Chief Baker is fielding questions from Al Jazeera America, Rolling Stone and the Australian Broadcasting Corp., among others.
The attention is on the disconcerting side. No one wants to be the poster child for drug abuse, but drug abuse is not what distinguishes Rutland. Rural America from Maine to Hawaii is similarly afflicted. What distinguishes Rutland is the scope of its response to the problem.
The problem itself ought not to be minimized. According to witnesses at the hearing, there were 21 heroin overdose deaths in Vermont last year and more than 50 deaths from other opiates. The death toll doubled between 2012 and 2013 and has grown by five times since 2008. Heroin investigations have has grown by more than five times in the last two years, and seizures of heroin have increased by more than three times. Requests for treatment have skyrocketed.
Several high-profile deaths have caught the attention of the public in recent years, but also worrying is the more visible presence of a drug culture that threatens the health of the community. Signs of the culture include gun violence, crime committed to support addiction, the deterioration of neighborhoods where drug houses are present and danger to young teens. One witness said drug dealers had sought to recruit young teens in Burlington as drug mules and had solicited girls for prostitution.
The presence of a drug culture means that Rutland and other cities and towns face a threat more insidious than the harm caused by individuals using drugs. When a drug culture takes hold, it attracts others and it spreads. It becomes difficult to eradicate. It takes hold in families, endangering children. It perpetuates itself, partly based on the attraction of addiction and partly based on money.
The antidote is community, which is the underlying principle of Project VISION, the comprehensive program led by Chief Baker and others. A strong community can weaken the culture so that it no longer has the power to attract and spread. There will always be addicts, but without a drug culture to promote the continuing use of drugs, the addicts will remain forlorn and desperate individuals.
Baker cited the partners that have teamed up with the Rutland Police Department to strengthen the community and weaken the drug culture. They include social workers, a domestic violence specialist, a prosecutor, an emergency crisis intervention specialist, a school resource officer, an animal control officer, a crime analyst and a building inspector.
This team is focusing on specific neighborhoods and trouble spots, on specific people with specific problems, in order to steer people away from trouble.
Rutland might be embarrassed by the attention it is receiving; in reality, the city ought to be proud. It has not solved the drug problem, but it is actively addressing it. Cities and towns across the country are looking for ways to lift themselves out of an attitude of passivity and hopelessness. Rutland is showing one way to do it.
There is much to the city unmentioned in the recent news coverage of the drug problem, but it is all part of the same thing: a city creating its own destiny as it looks for opportunities to achieve the growth, civic improvement and healthful change that will cause the drug culture eventually to wither away.
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