ELIZABETH A. CONKEY
BENNINGTON -- Sixteen suspected drug dealers in Bennington County were arrested Wednesday after local law enforcement officials conducted "Operation Strike Two," a follow-up to January's "Operation County Strike," during which time more than 40 suspected drug traffickers were taken into custody.
Officers from the Bennington Police Department, the Manchester Police Department, the Bennington County Sheriff's Department, and the Vermont State Police participated in the sweep, which targeted 23 defendants. Of those defendants, three had been taken into custody during January's sweep, police said.
All of the individuals arrested were transported by officers to either the state police barracks in Shaftsbury or the Bennington Police Department for processing.
Once processed, defendants were taken to the Bennington County Superior Court Criminal Division where they were arraigned throughout the afternoon.
During a press conference at the Shaftsbury barracks, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said drug activity in the Bennington area is "destroying the lives of our families and friends," and attributed the success of the sweeps to the continued collaboration by police.
"Our partnerships with municipal, state, and county law enforcement agencies allow us to take productive steps to deter the epidemic abuse of illicit drugs that is driving crime," Doucette said, noting the importance of punishment for those who had been apprehended.
"Our goal here is to make our community safe. We need to push back and have successful prosecution, have the judges take a look at these crimes that are being committed and hand out harsh sentences. This behavior is not going to continue in Bennington County."
Doucette also addressed the importance of seeking treatment for those addicted to drugs, relaying information regarding local recourses, including United Counseling Services and private physicians who specialize in treating drug addictions. He also noted the importance of consistency after seeking care.
"I firmly believe that treatment can be successful but once you complete treatment, you need to stay away from the issues that you were having prior to going into treatment," Doucette said. "It's not just a one-time thing. They need to receive their treatment and then stay engaged. Once people are to a point where they can be good members of our community, then we will welcome them into our community, as long as they've resolved their issues."
State's Attorney Erica Marthage, also present during Wednesday's press conference, acknowledged the importance of remaining persistent in the combating of Bennington's drug epidemic.
"Back in January we indicated this (drug sweep) would not be something we would be doing once and then dropping," Marthage said. "It's something we've maintained a constant eye on and something the investigators here in Bennington have been working on constantly. We're pleased to do this type of operation and it would be my goal to maintain this high level of persistence with these types of offenses, so that we can remain a safe community and make sure these types of crime do decline."
Marthage said a number of the Bennington cases from January's sweep have been resolved and that a healthy number of "stiff sentences" have been handed out.
She did not speak to the extent of the charges or release names of repeat offenders, but Marthage said she was pleased with the number of arrests made Wednesday, less than half of those made in January.
"We have noticed a decline, at least in the court system, with the types of cases like this that we are running across," Marthage said. "So, I think this is a problem we need to continue to focus on."
Manchester Chief of Police Michael Hall said during the conference that he is grateful to the residents of Bennington County who have come forward with information that aided in the sweeps.
"They have provided crucial information to law enforcement officials who then take that information and deal with the individuals appropriately," he said, adding that the entire state of Vermont, not just Bennington County, is facing a drug epidemic.
"We are going to continue to press forward with our efforts," Hall said. "To those that are making the conscious choice to come into our communities and peddle their poison, you will be arrested if you continue. I urge you to seek out the help that you need. There are plenty of sources available."
According to Hall, five of the 16 suspected drug dealers arrested are Manchester residents.
Seven additional suspects are being sought for similar drug trafficking charges. According to police, investigators will issue arrest warrants, but it is expected that several of the remaining targets will turn themselves in to police.
Defendants who fail to post bail will be transported to the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.