Conflicted over crime

Repeated acts of theft and violence leave a bad feeling hanging over Brattleboro. It's all part of a larger context of income disparity and ineffective criminal justice.

GUILFORD — The surge in crime was supposed to be the Republicans' ticket to a landslide in the 2022 midterms. For a variety of reasons - mainly, the general awfulness of the Republicans running for office - this challenging issue that generally works for the right wing did not come through for them.

It may also be due to the fact that the primary Republican solution to crime - lock away all Black men - is cruel, racist, and, of course, ineffective. It may also be that the Republicans have a hard time calling themselves the party of law and order when their top man - Donald Trump - is a white collar criminal, and they complain endlessly about the FBI doing the job they were hired to do. In fact, on the whole, Republicans do not even consider white-collar crime real as so many of them commit these offenses.

All citizens who are not working to create chaos, like the MAGA cult, want safe communities. And for many of us on the left, the issue of crime leaves us conflicted.

In Brattleboro, we are facing an ongoing spate of what most people consider petty theft: break-ins to cars and businesses. My bookstore has had four break-ins in the past year, after having none for the previous 38 years.

I have attended meetings with other merchants, as well as with citizens who live downtown and with those working in the many nonprofits that call our town home. The frustration is palpable, and the solutions are few.

* * *

The conventional solutions - arrest and prison - are not working, for a few reasons.

One is a lack of police. Our chief is trying to hire, but at the last Selectboard meeting I attended, we were still 10 officers short, out of the 27 positions covered in the budget.

The police know exactly who is committing all the petty crime, but the system is working against them. Even when they are able to arrest a person they are certain has committed a crime, judges have suspects out on the street in less than 24 hours so they can break in again.

Clearly, “catch and release” is not working. Amazingly, at our store, we had a guy who stole 17 books by Stephen King and fenced them to a local used book dealer claiming to be a fast-reading fan. When we called the used book dealer, he felt awful, gave us back our books, and filed a police report.

The guy was arrested. A couple of days later, he walked into the bookstore, cool as a cucumber, and stole the donation jar for Groundworks - while smiling at two employees!

One even chased him, but he was faster.

* * *

Street drugs in our society create many dire problems, of which petty crime is only one.

The fact that Rutland County and Chittenden County each have a drug court and we don't feels like yet another way that Windham County is a “poor relation” in Vermont. We are the gateway town for the huge drug pipeline from southern New England, and we desperately need a constructive pathway for the many substance users to get the help they need.

When the choice is the street or overnight in jail, nobody gets better. A drug court at least directs some of the more troubled people to rehab where at least there is a possibility of becoming a healthier person with a home and a life.

In addition to some kind of constructive legal process, like a drug court, we do need a presence on the streets at night. We need someone walking and watching.

The town should have a budget surplus with 10 police officers not on the job, as they are not yet hired. What about hiring some kind of private security, well-vetted, maybe not armed, and supervised by Chief Norma Hardy, just to walk the downtown streets all night and keep an eye on the goings on?

We as a town could limit their power to observation, but they could certainly act as a deterrent to the break-ins, drug purchases, and general bad things that happen in the unattended parking garage.

* * *

These repeated acts of theft and violence leave a bad feeling hanging over our town. What is property crime but a person or persons being their own mini-Donald Trump, with the mantra “what you have is mine, and I will take it from you”?

Republicans want to eliminate the thousands of tax agents rehired by the Biden administration to deal with the high-end, white-collar tax criminals. They had fired them because they seem to believe that the wealthy can get away with any and all crime.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the Republican Senatorial Committee, had to pay $1.7 billion in a fine for Medicare fraud.

Theft of resources and refusal of the rich to pay anything like their fair share of taxes is one of the major factors that has led to the vast inequality that plagues our country. That massive and growing wealth gap creates conditions for the type of crime Brattleboro is experiencing.

No matter what we do to fix our town's problems, unless we can get a handle on how the super-rich are taking all the resources and leaving slim pickings for the rest of society, we will not live in a safe community.