A sign inside the Brattleboro police station encourages patrol officers.
Ellen Pratt/The Commons
A sign inside the Brattleboro police station encourages patrol officers.

Brattleboro police chief finds stories in the numbers

The statistics for the department’s activities in 2023 show a snapshot of a community and a still-understaffed police department looking to take fresh approaches to problems

BRATTLEBORO-Norma Hardy looks at the town as "a very, very busy hive," with the police chief noting that the Brattleboro Police Department (BPD) responded to 11,277 calls for services in 2023.

That's up almost 8% since last year, according to the BPD's 2023 Annual Report. But embedded in the numbers are difficult stories of a community, and Hardy took The Commons through the numbers in a recent interview, offering some context about a still-understaffed police force adapting to providing public safety to residents of a fast-changing town that has barely emerged from a global pandemic with a range of problems.

"With 12,000 people in town, there's some of just about everything here," Hardy said. "We do have to deal with violent crime in Brattleboro. And we do have to deal with sexual assaults. But we also deal with people just needing help."

Hardy hopes that by explaining a bit about what's behind the numbers in her annual report, she can help to alleviate any "feeling of foreboding" one might feel seeing its data.

Traffic stops and calls about suspicious persons comprised 25% of all calls last year.

The police handled 1,525 "suspicious person/circumstance" calls last year, 3% more than the year before. "What's suspicious to you may not be suspicious to me," Hardy said. "We don't say that anything is a definite until we've investigated it."

Hardy gave an example of someone walking alone through town and yelling. She agrees that some may find this behavior frightening or threatening and call the police, but her team wants to understand the situation.

"We go and talk to the person and see if they're OK," Hardy said. "Do they need help? We talk to them a little bit more, and see what kind of services we can offer them, if any, and whether they'll accept them."

"Our job is a combination of everything from social services to police services, to referral services," Hardy added. "No call is ever the same."

"If we have a person who goes into a business and just continuously walks around the business but doesn't purchase anything, or maybe is just hanging out there, or leaves and comes back - that kind of activity - the business owner may feel that that may be suspicious to them," Hardy explained. "So they may call it in."

Or, she said, "someone is walking through a parking lot looking into cars. It could be someone who's just lost, and you don't want to jump to conclusions."

Hardy has been promoting the use of the Neighbors by Ring phone app, which allows users to share information, including videos captured with home security systems and video doorbell devices, with BPD about suspicious activity. Her staff has been able to solve some crimes in town with video footage uploaded to the police department through the app.

Traffic stops are up

Brattleboro police made 1,290 traffic stops last year, up 17% since 2022.

"We get a lot of reports of people running stop signs, driving past stopped school buses with their lights on, and drag racing," Hardy said.

Hardy trusts her officers to exercise discretion and to treat everyone with professionalism and fairness.

"There's always a reason when someone is being stopped," she said. "We give lots of warnings. We understand that not everyone can afford to pay for a ticket. We understand that not everyone can afford to take care of the issue with their car. If it's not something that makes the car so dangerous that we have to take it off the road, then we will give you time to correct the issue. We do that quite often."

While general theft in town has decreased by 14% since 2022, reports of retail theft have increased by 10%.

Hardy said her staff is familiar with a small number of individuals who take up most of the department's time and resources. "They trespass all over town," she said.

Assistant Chief Jeremy Evans works with agencies such as Groundworks Collaborative and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS) to try to provide the help that many of these people need.

"Some people in the throes of addiction are engaging in criminal activity, but that doesn't mean they're inherently criminals," Hardy said. "Maybe if we can get them help, they would no longer be committing these acts," she said. "We've had success at getting some folks to accept services."

Drugs remain a big problem

Hardy began her law enforcement career 32 years ago with the Police Department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, retiring as assistant chief. Prior to that she worked in New York City as an EMT, at a time when crack was in heavy use.

"I started doing police work because I wanted to be of service," Hardy said.

Now, she wants to help Brattleboro with its drug problem.

While alcohol leads the list of the top five drugs involved in incidents investigated by the police, with 265 calls in 2023, the next four drugs put together - heroin, crack, fentanyl, and cocaine - outnumber it, with 334 calls in total.

Drugs are "such an intense subject," Hardy said, which "can be overwhelming, so we tend to look for the easiest route to deal with it. But the problem is complicated. We have to look at why someone has become addicted and then delve deeper into why they remain addicted."

Hardy has built trust with people who struggle with substance abuse.

"I've had people call me and talk for hours," she said. "They talk about how hard it is to just survive one day to the next. They may be off the streets, in a hotel, but that's basically it. Nothing else is working for them."

Such callers tell her that the hardest thing for them is to distance themselves from drugs, "because there's so much out there," she said.

BPD is a partner in Project CARE (Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement), a partnership developed in 2018 in response to the public health emergency caused by the opioid epidemic. Project CARE aims to reduce the impact of opioid use on the town and its residents, reduce the number of drug deaths, and connect people with recovery support.

Project CARE partners include Turning Point, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Groundworks Collaborative, Habit OPCO, Brattleboro Retreat, HCRS, and the Vermont Department of Probation and Parole.

The BPD takes a nuanced view of how drugs are affecting the community.

People in the grip of drugs may steal packages from porches or go through cars. Hardy calls these "quality-of-life" crimes.

But then there are the professional drug dealers.

"For someone who has decided that their line of work will be to sell drugs, then that's when we need to act," Hardy said. "We need to do our jobs as the police. And our job is to stop them from doing that."

In 2023, officers responded to 82 overdose incidents, and of those that were fatal, the majority involved fentanyl. Hardy said her officers administered Narcan (naloxone), a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, on 43 occasions last year.

That work takes its toll.

"It's so rare for anyone to ask how my officers are doing in having to respond to deaths," Hardy said. "I have to be an advocate for their mental health. I now have a therapist on retainer for the department."

Staffing still an issue

Hardy has made staffing a priority. She began the job in a department gutted with vacancies, with only about half of its full police force of 27 officers on the job. The department now employs 18 officers.

Recruits undertake 30 weeks of training at the Vermont Police Academy before beginning with the force. BPD recently enrolled seven recruits, but two did not complete the course.

"We hope that everyone that we send to the academy passes," Hardy said, "but I say that two [dropping out] is not a disappointing number. The police academy is a hard adjustment for people, physically and mentally. They put you through a lot of grueling tasks."

Years ago, Brattleboro would send recruits for training only to have them leave the force two years later for a better-paying job. Hardy maintains that this is no longer the case.

"I have not had anyone leave under those kinds of circumstances," she said, noting that the town is "very competitive" with other towns when it comes to police officer compensation.

"I've had people leave, of course, because that's just life," Hardy said. "But I have not heard of them leaving and transferring to other departments."

Quality Inn is a hot spot

With the largest volume of vehicular traffic and the biggest concentration of commercial establishments in town, Putney Road and Canal Street were the top locations for police responses last year. Much of the response was focused on traffic accidents, trespassing, and retail theft.

Hardy noted that her officers responded to calls from the Quality Inn on Putney Road 244 times last year. Police responses included citizen assistance, arrests for theft, and response to complaints.

The Quality Inn continues to participate in Vermont's pandemic-era emergency shelter program, launched in response to Covid in 2020. The program is slated to end this June, but at the peak of the pandemic more than 250 households were sheltering in local motels, including seven in Brattleboro. Most of the program participants from Brattleboro found themselves at the Quality Inn.

Almost since the inception of the program, participants have complained about conditions in motels across the state. An inspection of the Quality Inn in December by the Vermont Division of Fire Safety, the Vermont Public Health Department, and Brattleboro's assistant fire chief found the owner, Anil Sachdev, in violation of health and fire codes.

A follow-up inspection in January revealed that some of the violations had been addressed.

"I have been talking about the Quality Inn to whoever would listen to me," said Hardy. "When I went through, I was aghast at the condition of the building: the rugs, the walls, children walking through the lobby. Things need to be cleaned."

"What I found needs to be talked about," Hardy added. "People who live there are in distress. It's not just the Brattleboro Police Department that's going to be able to fix all of this. But maybe if we all work together we can make it better."

Is Brattleboro safe?

"I can say that Brattleboro is a safe place to live and visit," Hardy said, "but someone's perception is their reality. I take your fear seriously. If you are afraid, I ask why. Because maybe I can give you specific information about things that we've changed, and I can relieve you of some of your fear."

Referring to the department's annual report, which is posted in the 2023 Brattleboro Annual Town Report on the town website, Hardy said, "It's really good that the public sees these numbers, sees what their police department is doing. Some people think we do nothing. They might see an officer looking at their phone, but that's their work phone so they're looking to see what their next job is. But God forbid if they stop and have a doughnut."

"I don't even like doughnuts!" Hardy exclaimed.

This News item by Ellen Pratt and Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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