MARLBORO—When Vermont State Police Lt. Tim Oliver stepped in front of a crowd at Marlboro School Oct. 19, he was met with a round of enthusiastic applause.
“I don’t get this very much,” Oliver quipped.
But the greeting was representative of a new spirit of cooperation and communication between police and residents here, even as a string of burglaries has left Marlboro on edge.
Residents are organizing, using email, social media and Neighborhood Watch-style groups. And they’re connecting with state police, who are asking for the public’s help and say they are getting closer to solving the break-in cases that have plagued this town for months.
“The No. 1 thing we need is communication,” Oliver said.
Oliver, commander of the Westminster barracks, said his troopers aren't seeing any significant uptick in burglary cases in the region. And he told those attending the Oct. 19 community meeting in Marlboro that “you are not alone,” pointing to recent break-ins in towns like Putney and Londonderry.
A town on edge
But Marlboro residents, who number just over 1,000 according to the latest census, have been unnerved by a few waves of burglaries in recent months. State police reported three in the last week of August, and those cases had been preceded by several burglaries in June and July.
In each of those cases, homes were entered during daylight hours, with thieves swiping items such as electronics, jewelry, and musical instruments.
Also, Marlboro School officials reported that someone broke into the Route 9 building over Labor Day weekend, though nothing was missing.
Selectboard members and residents convened to discuss the problem in early September, and things seemed to quiet down for a while. But there have been four more Marlboro burglaries reported by state police during the past several weeks.
The string of break-ins has caught the attention of the region’s law enforcement leaders, with Oliver saying he has assigned Westminster-based Trooper Matthew Steeves to coordinate the investigation. Oliver couldn't divulge specific details, but he said police are making progress and may be “very close to solving these cases.”
In the meantime, Marlboro residents have been taking action. They’ve worked to compile and share information about the burglaries while also establishing better lines of communication in a mountain town with spotty cellular reception and internet access.
“The idea is to reach out to your neighbor when you need help. That’s something I learned when I was a kid,” said Kate Tarlow Morgan, who grew up in New York City but has lived in Marlboro for about eight years.
Morgan said she started an email group in her neighborhood more than a year ago. “Whenever any of us went away on trips, in the summer particularly, we would let each other know,” she said. “And others would kind of watch out — just check, be aware if there was a weird car in the driveway.”
When the burglary cases started piling up this year, that network proved useful. “It became more of an information channel to alert each other if we saw the same car,” Morgan said. “We were sharing license plate numbers, we were sharing odd activity, whatever.”
Some discussion at the Oct. 19 meeting focused on taking that organization to the next level via a Neighborhood Watch group. While such groups can be formalized under the auspices of the national Neighborhood Watch program (information at www.nnw.org), Oliver said even the signs advising that such a group exists can act as a crime deterrent.
Oliver advised residents to “keep it small. You don’t want a Neighborhood Watch of 1,000 people. It gets confusing and complicated.”
Morgan has taken that advice, ordering Neighborhood Watch signs for her neighborhood. “It’s in the works in that we don’t have anything formalized by an outside organization,” she said. “But we’re connected, and we are monitoring the road.”
An opportunity to connect
In addition to disseminating Neighborhood Watch advice, Oliver also used the Marlboro meeting to get better-acquainted with the town and with residents. The state police veteran was the commander of the Rockingham barracks until that facility merged with the Brattleboro barracks this past summer, and he’s now in charge of all of the county’s troopers at the new Westminster station.
That means there is no longer a state police presence in West Brattleboro, just a short trip down Route 9 from Marlboro. But Oliver assured residents that troopers are spread around the county in four zones to reduce response times.
“They’re assigned to Westminster, but that’s just a base,” Oliver said. “That’s not where they spend anywhere near the majority of their time.”
He acknowledged “some growing pains” since the consolidation, and he said a major event like Tuesday’s homicide in Wardsboro can divert troopers away from their assigned zones.
“We have a great plan,” Oliver said. “It’s just a matter of having everything cooperate to let it work to its full potential.”
Even at the best of times, however, state police manpower is limited. So Oliver said residents need to be prepared — preferably with pen and paper, given poor cellular reception — to record and report suspicious activity and key information like license plate numbers and physical descriptions.
“Don’t be afraid to call,” he said. “That’s what we get paid for.”
He also offered common-sense tips like hiding telltale signs that a home is unoccupied; asking neighbors to keep an eye out; and securing windows and doors.
“Does everybody lock their doors?” Oliver asked at one point in the meeting.
A member of the audience responded quickly with, “we do now.”
Pieter van Loon, vice chairman of Marlboro’s Selectboard, said the discussion with Oliver was helpful even though the burglaries seem to have picked up pace in recent weeks.
“There’s been a lot of information going out to the police, but not so much coming back,” van Loon said. “So it was nice to get some information from them. I think it helped give people a little bit of a sense of security.”