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What drives crime in Brattleboro?

Acting Police Chief to downtown merchants: Drugs are at the root

BRATTLEBORO—A recent spate of break-ins and vandalism to Main Street businesses has left some merchants asking what’s behind it all — and how they can be part of the solution.

“The great majority of our non-violent crimes — and even our violent ones — in Brattleboro are tied to drugs,” Acting Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald told roughly a dozen downtown merchants at their first-Tuesday Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB) meeting at the River Garden.

The conversation touched on shoplifting, advice for installing alarm systems, “vagrants” sleeping on shop benches, and merchants photographing shoplifters or suspected drug dealers in the hopes of driving them away.

“How do we as a community make it unfriendly for those dealing drugs?” asked BaBB President Donna Simons, who owns A Candle in the Night.

Simons said she asked Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Police Chief Eugene Wrinn, about creating a neighborhood watch.

According to Simons, Wrinn said if people drive the crime from downtown, it will find another neighborhood. Simons said she no longer worries about that.

“There’s a difference between [being] mildly accepting because you feel helpless, and [being] proactive,” she said. “I kind of feel we have to take downtown back.”

The conversation turned its focus to drug-related crimes in Brattleboro and how the town might create a supportive community while discouraging drugs and empowering merchants to protect their interests.

Some audience members spoke of witnessing uncomfortable interactions such as drug deals, pedestrian harassment, and customer intimidation.

A substance abuse counselor said she was intimidated by a group of men who hung around her former office. Clients wouldn’t brave the group to keep appointments, she said.

A man she often tried to avoid once blocked her path and stared her down.

“I’m not a chicken, but I know when I’m outmatched,” she said.

Fitzgerald said he understood that people sometimes fear retaliation over calling the police. Still, he urged the merchants to make contact — even if the only outcome was that the incident would be logged.

Fitzgerald explained that intimidating or dangerous behavior constitutes disorderly conduct. “You’re endangering other people by your actions,” he said.

Police can address people blocking the sidewalk or intimidating others, he said.

Although Fitzgerald encouraged merchants to be proactive, he also reminded them to avoid danger. And he reminded them that even drug dealers have constitutional rights.

The Vermont judicial system views drug-related crimes differently than crimes where drugs don’t play a role, said Fitzgerald.

In the state’s mind, if it jails and releases someone addicted to drugs, then the only result is an addict who is clean while in jail, said Fitzgerald. Within a few days, the person will return to using drugs.

“You have to address the addiction,” he said. “It is the drugs that are driving it.”

Fitzgerald acknowledged merchant frustration in watching the person who burgled their store enter a rehab program and not prison.

Laura Lynde of Lynde Motorsports on Flat Street cautioned against creating an “us versus them” situation. If people sense hostility, they’re more likely to respond with hostility, she said.

Instead, she asked, how can each member of this community step up to create a supportive and drug-free environment?

Lynde, formerly of Hartford, Conn., said she adapted to protecting herself against such crimes as carjacking.

In her opinion, drug-related crime in Brattleboro has grown more prevalent. The town essentially is dealing with a drug cartel, she said of an intricate network of dealers and buyers, which other merchants said they have witnessed.

Lynde said she felt Vermont’s approach to drug-related crime — moving offenders to rehabilitation programs rather than prison — is wise.

The root of the problem, she said, is that, “we have a small-town police force dealing with city crime.”

Fitzgerald said he does not support creating an official police photo-sharing system of arrested shoplifters. “Once you pay your debt to society you’re done,” he said.

Fitzgerald also said he did not support loitering ordinances because they are too subjective. People more readily perceive homeless people as loiterers than they would someone wearing a suit and tie.

“And let’s not be too quick to judge people by their appearance,” he added.

Many of the merchants in the audience said that the people in town who are homeless were not behind downtown crime. Nevertheless, customers complain.

Simons said the combination of homelessness, “shady-looking people,” and young transient kids with dogs who sit in downtown doorways create a perfect storm for illegal behavior.

“The word is out that this area is very inviting,” said Orly Munzing, director of the Strolling of the Heifers, speaking of food pantries and other services in town that attract people.

To that, Jacob Alan Roberts, downtown coordinator for BaBB, suggested that one imagine how horrible the town would be if people were going hungry.

“Call more, I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Fitzgerald. “You know when something is fishy.”

Separately, Fitzgerald said that Brattleboro’s drug issue is not simply about law enforcement. He said he supports investing in rehabilitation for those dealing with substance abuse.

When asked if one type of drug use was more prevalent in town, Fitzgerald said he sees “a broad mish-mash.”

“Nothing is off limits,” he said. “That’s what’s concerning.”

BaBB will invite members from social service organizations in town to its September meeting to discuss ways merchants and service organizations might work together to help prevent crime downtown.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #266 (Wednesday, August 6, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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