ST. ALBANS: Drug battle paying off

Rep. Welch rides with police

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Staff Writer

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We’re going to have to be vigilant and pay attention.

- Gary Taylor, police chief

ST. ALBANS CITY — The national media has been discussing the drug problem in Vermont since January when Gov. Peter Shumlin drew attention to the issue in his state of the state address. Meanwhile, St. Albans has been open about confronting drug use and drug related crime in the community for five years.

On Monday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., came to the city to learn about the successful efforts to curb the drug trade in St. Albans from St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor, city officials, and others.

Mayor Liz Gamache worked at city hall as an assistant city manager in 2008 when the decision was made to speak with the public about the rising drug problem. “If we didn’t talk about problems, we wouldn’t solve anything,” said Gamache.

Based on the community’s crime statistics, it was the right decision.

“I think everything the governor said was absolutely true,” said Taylor. “For us it was five years ago.”

Between 2009 and 2013 drug crimes in St. Albans City dropped 82 percent, with only 17 drug violations in the city last year.

Assaults are down 29 percent. Burglaries are down 41 percent. Vandalism, disorderly conduct and calls related to suspicious behavior are all down.

In 2008, the drug trade was focused primarily on prescription painkillers, particularly Oxycontin. The response included the medical community and social service agencies as well as the police department, explained Taylor. “It’s not one entity or another. It’s all of us working together,” he said.

However, the police have taken the lead, and the community has shown a willingness to invest in the department.

The St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD) has gone from 16 officers to 24, one of whom is a full-time drug investigator working with the Vermont Drug Task Force.

Another is an expert on gang-related activity, who has trained other SAPD officers in how to combat gang activity and is now offering the same training through the state’s police academy.

In addition, the police started the first drug take back program for prescription drugs in Vermont after Taylor learned of similar programs in other states. The school resource officer at Bellows Free Academy (BFA) is now accompanied by a passive drug dog, which alerts the officer if it detects drugs. Having the dog in the school sets a tone, said Taylor.

In the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 15 percent reported being aware of drugs being traded or sold on school property, versus 18 percent statewide.

The department has conducted high-profile drug raids including working with other agencies on a countywide raid last summer in which 50 people were arrested. “A number of these people were significant players,” said Taylor.

During the final planning stages for the raid, Northwestern Medical Center was included, because law enforcement anticipated the medical community would see an increase in addicted people needing help once the drug supply was reduced.

Taylor also pointed to the addition of cameras at key areas in the city, including the courthouse parking lot and Houghton Park, as having reduced crime.

The city is adding more cameras to other city parks and to the new parking garage.

Finally, the revitalization of downtown has helped to combat the drug trade, in Taylor’s view. With full storefronts there are fewer places for drugs to be traded downtown without being observed.

Economic development is “having a positive impact throughout the entire community,” said Gamache.

“There’s an abundance of optimism here,” said Taylor.

Taylor, who said his department is not resting on its laurels, is concerned about what could happen now that the national media has drawn attention to the level of profit that can be made by bringing drugs into Vermont. “I think we’re going to have to be vigilant and pay attention,” said Taylor. “I’m optimistic we’ll really go after that supply when it comes in.”

In Welch’s view the media attention shows “Vermont is a confident state that is willing to acknowledge problems and face them.”

His colleagues in the Congress tell him their states are dealing with the same things, especially in rural communities, said the congressman.

Discussing the drug problem openly isn’t advertising it, it’s addressing it, said Welch.