The city of Burlington, Vermont launched a new push in its ongoing attempt to reverse what police and public health officials have described an opiate addiction crisis.
"We know we have a problem," said Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington as he launched an effort called CommunityStat.
With reports of heroin overdoses rising, complaints about crimes like car break-ins linked to drug addiction, and persistent wait-times for drug treatment, CommunityStat is a data-driven task force.
The project brings together non-profits, city leaders, police, health experts, and others. They will analyze trends and work collaboratively for change, under a new city drug czar housed within the Burlington Police Department.
"We have a real opportunity here, and the opportunity is to stop the cycle of death," said Jackie Corbally, Burlington's opioid policy coordinator.
That cycle is a jarring reality for this college town of just over 42,000, which is more famous for its beauty, recreation, fresh food, and relaxed atmosphere.
"In some ways, how great things are in Burlington and how high a quality of life it’s been has a little bit masked this problem," Mayor Weinberger told necn.
Beneath the surface, there has been plenty of evidence of the problem recently.
This summer, citizens reported needles on beaches and in parks, and city officials responded with added vigilance and clean-up efforts.
In 2014, the city library resorted to locking bathrooms, after some toilets were discovered to be clogged with hypodermic needles.
Some of those discoveries were made alongside or even inside City Hall, prompting sharps disposal boxes in restrooms there.
"We're a community and we're a state who actually said yeah, we have this reputation as being this beautiful place, and in fact it is," said Martha Maksym of the United Way of Northwest Vermont, who is part of the CommunityStat effort. "And part of what makes it that beautiful is that we're willing to peel back the onion and really look at, and name, and own some of the challenges we have and respond really holistically; really comprehensively."
Maksym said because Burlington is a small city and Chittenden County features tight-knit connections between agencies, the task force believes it will be able to more effectively collaborate and speed resources to where they will have an impact.
In addition to saving lives, a prime goal of CommunityStat is boosting the public’s perception of the quality of life, safety, and public health in the city, Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department said.
"When they say I'm going to patronize businesses downtown, whether I'm going to leave valuables in my car, whether I'm going to install a burglar alarm or not, whether I'm going to let my kid play on a playground and not worry about them stepping on needles, when those are no longer factors in their mind, then we’ll know we've helped free the city from the grip of opioids," del Pozo said of Burlington's residents and visitors.