Members of law enforcement, business leaders, politicians, community members and others in the city of Rutland, Vermont honored Police Chief Jim Baker Tuesday. After three years leading the Rutland Police Department, the former commander of the Vermont State Police is leaving Rutland for a new job with the International Association of Chiefs of Police in the Washington, D.C. area.
One of Baker's legacies in this city of more than 16,000 will be Project Vision. Launched with the help of Baker, the effort helped put in place new approaches to combating what had become a full-blown heroin crisis in Rutland. "It really has made a big difference," Baker said.
Project Vision is a broad coalition: everyone from neighborhood activists, non-profits, business owners, building inspectors, cops, and more. They all want to see Rutland reverse its drug problem and make other steps to improve the health, safety, and vibrancy of the city.
Under the concept, no longer do many police calls end merely with an officer arresting someone. Now, partners such as mental health experts or domestic violence reduction agencies are more in the loop. Addiction specialists may point someone who suffered an overdose to the city's new methadone clinic. Landlords are being encouraged to clean up properties and improve blighted neighborhoods.
Baker told New England Cable News examples such as these and others are working. Crimes committed by desperate addicts scrounging for a fix are down in Rutland, Baker said. "We do know from some of the statistical data, for example, through the end of November comparing 2014 to 2013, our thefts from cars was down 60 percent," Baker added. "That's significant."
"I think it's completely revolutionary," said Alecia Armstrong, a mental health crisis response worker who's part of Project Vision.
Armstrong said she believes both encouraging addicts to seek recovery and the attention Project Vision pays to improving the quality of life in Rutland have made the city a less appealing place for drug dealers to push heroin, illicit painkillers, and other substances. "We don't have any big pie in the sky ideas that we're going to 'cure addiction in Rutland,'" Armstrong told NECN. "People are going to be addicted, that's going to happen. But we've lessened it."
Rutland Mayor Chris Louras indicated that under Baker, many people in Rutland have gotten their faith in police back. Before his arrival, the department had been rocked with several scandals, including, in one infamous case, a sergeant accused of watching porn at work.
"We, as a community, with the chief leaving, need to remain committed to ensuring those changes that were put into place are embraced into the future," Louras said, adding his praise to Baker and to Project Vision.
Jim Baker said he believes Project Vision could easily work in other small cities, as long as the pride of place is the same.
In his new role, as director of law enforcement and support at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Baker said he is looking forward to advocating for the health and wellness of police officers around the world. He said he will also have other responsibilities, including advocating for officer safety, traffic safety, and managing grants.
David Covell, a longtime member of the Vermont State Police and former head of its detective operations, will assume leadership of the Rutland Police Dept. early in 2015.