(NECN: Jack Thurston, Rutland, Vt.) - "The level of addiction in the city of Rutland is mind-boggling," said Chief Jim Baker of the Rutland, Vt. Police Dept.
Baker joined federal, state, and local law enforcement Monday to send a message they're getting even tougher on drugs in southern Vermont in the months ahead. The group said federal prosecutors have brought 30 cases to court in the last year. Some involved defendants accused of trafficking hundreds, if not thousands, of bags a week coming up from places like New York City, western Massachusetts and Chicago, according to the group of investigators and prosecutors.
Baker said the drug activity in Rutland is leading to a spike in burglaries, larcenies, fights, and other crimes. "It's not like we have wild shoot-outs on the streets or people knifing people," Baker noted. "It's the [lower-level crime] chaos in the neighborhoods that causes us to have a difficult time marketing Rutland as a place to come live, work, and play."
Law enforcement officials at the press conference said there's now a laser focus on the issue of heroin in the Rutland area. Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, said there are more federal resources and police partnerships devoted to fighting drugs in the region than have been in years past.
Coffin said he believes the heroin problem worsened after an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse several years ago. "If people from any place: in Vermont or away, think they can come here and make a good profit selling drugs, they need to know there are significant forces allied to make sure the costs of doing that are quite high," Coffin said.
Earlier this month, the Rutland Regional Medical Center announced it'll open a drug treatment facility in the Howe Center, near the city's downtown. RRMC said the facility should open early this fall to help patients kick their addictions to heroin and prescription painkillers. "We can't just arrest our way out of the problem," Coffin said, describing the need of treatment options for addicts such as the upcoming one.
Lynne Walsh, the executive director of Rutland United Neighborhoods, a group that advocates for safer neighborhoods, said the problem of heroin is noticeable, but not insurmountable. "I think it's easy to get. I think it's easy to manufacture," Walsh said.
Walsh told New England Cable News the community of 16,500 is eager to see a reduction in drug crimes. "The community right now is poised to be a much better place. We've got a [police] chief that's acting on his concerns for public safety, we've got a hospital that's supportive of getting addiction under control and providing a treatment center here in the community, and you've got people who want to get help and not ruin their relationships because of addiction."
Chief Baker told reporters the city is also pursuing grants to target drug prevention methods. "There's a movement that's happening and it’s really positive and I'm pretty excited about it," Walsh said, smiling.
Law enforcement said input from the public is key to helping combat drug crimes. Baker asked anyone with information on suspected drug activity in their neighborhoods to make a police report on the department’s tip-taking website. Tips can be made anonymously through this website.