Vermont has made national headlines since coming out in the open about its growing heroin epidemic.
In doing so the state has shined the spotlight on a scourge that is ruining communities not only in Bennington and Windham counties, but all over the country. Drug deals are taking place in parks where our children play, desperate addicts are robbing homes and stores to support their habit, our hospitals are filling up with overdose victims, and our prisons are overcrowded with people whose crimes are often related to their addictions.
To fight this growing menace Gov. Peter Shumlin is proposing more emphasis on treating drug addiction as an illness instead of a crime. He wants Vermont to provide more treatment and rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenses related to drug use. By treating the problem at the source -- drug addiction -- we can avoid a whole slew of financial and societal costs later. And we can make our communities a better, safer place in which to live and raise a family.
We support those efforts and hope they are successful, of course, but in the meantime we still need our police departments to find the drug dealers who are bringing this poison into our communities, and to catch the burglars and robbers who steal our peace of mind as well as our possessions just to feed their next fix.
This requires a team effort between multiple law enforcement agencies, like last week’s drug busts in Bennington and in Bellows Falls that involved a lengthy investigation and the coordination between local, state and federal law enforcement. Kudos to all those involved in those operations for a job well done, by the way.
Just as important as a good collaborative effort between these different agencies is a solid relationship between the police and local residents. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship in which residents count on the police to keep them safe and secure, and the police need citizens to help be their eyes and ears out in the community. And in both cases there needs to be a certain degree of mutual trust and respect.
Sir Robert Peel, Britain’s Home Secretary in the 1820s, recognized the importance of having the police work with the public in carrying out their duties. He created the nine principles of policing that gave rise to the philosophy known as "policing by consent." Four of those principles involve improving relations between the police and the citizens:
* To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
* To recognize always that the extent to which the cooperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
* To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law.
* To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
In other words, citizens have a responsibility to work with the police -- to report suspicious activity or a dangerous threat to the community -- so the police can more effectively do their job. As the National Crime Prevention Council notes, better police-community relations can help officers police more effectively; find their jobs safer and easier to do; face less litigation and gain longer careers; be treated with greater respect; and have better morale.
On the other hand, poor relations between community members and police can lead to feelings of distrust, anger and fear. Citizens may think the police are prejudiced and have unfair policies. Police may feel blame for all kinds of social problems, and think they don’t get credit for doing their jobs.
The Council says Neighborhood Watch and other dialogue-to-change programs help build bridges that enable residents and law enforcement to communicate, collaborate and work together to build safer, more caring communities. That’s why we were pleased to see officers from the Brattleboro Police Department host a "Coffee with a Cop" event at Brueggers in Brattleboro last week. The informal gathering allowed residents to sit down one-on-one with a police officer to discuss issues and build relationships.
Interactions like this help advance community policing through improving relationships between police officers and the community, one sip at a time.