BENNINGTON -- Wednesday's drug sweep that led to 16 arrests across Bennington County targeted those suspected of being low- to mid-level dealers, according to Vermont State Police Lt. Matthew Birmingham, commander of the Vermont Drug Task Force.
Birmingham said Thursday that the goal of these operations, which have been conducted in St. Albans, Springfield, and once before in Bennington, has been to disrupt the widest point of the drug distribution network in Vermont. He noted that people have been coming to the state from New York and Massachusetts with large quantities of heroin and cocaine, which they distribute to local dealers. The latter are the prime targets of the sweep operations, but the sweeps are not limited to those people.
The first sweep by the mobile task force, which was created by a legislative bill last year to address gang activity, was conducted in January. Police had a list of 63 people which they amassed after months of setting up drug deals with confidential informants and suspected dealers. In one day, during a major drug sweep deemed "Operation County Strike," more than 40 people were arrested and arraigned in Vermont Superior Court.
Birmingham said gangs are not operating in Vermont directly, but are suspected of being the origins of the drugs coming in to the state.
The Legislature budgeted $150,000 for the sweeps in fiscal year 2013, and the same amount for fiscal year 2014, said Birmingham. Whether a sweep is conducted or not, and where it is conducted, depends on what information has been collected and funding.
Asked if there would be more sweeps, Birmingham said, "I don't want to say yes, but I'm not going to say no, either."
He said the experience in Bennington County shows the sweeps are doing what they were intended to. Only three of the 16 arrested Wednesday had been arrested in the first roundup, which he said is a sign of success as far as law enforcement's part goes.
What needs to happen next is the demand for drugs needs to be cut, which means treatment and prevention. "If we don't do that, they're not going to stop coming in," he said.
One of the things the sweeps do is get communities talking. Birmingham said after the operation in Springfield over the summer the town held a meeting in which 200 people showed up. "It's a community problem, and it has to be a community solution," he said.
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Friday that there was an attempt by the town and the Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, formerly posted at the First Baptist Church of Bennington, to organize something like that but nothing has come from it. Hugenot left Bennington in May for New York.
Birmingham said the bill that created the task force also established a committee to determine its effectiveness.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the task force also goes after large drug suppliers, but determining who those people are can be difficult. Many do operate out of state, he said, but not all. "Right now we have a huge problem with heroin and the drug trade, and we are not doing anything to cut the demand," he said.
The Department of Corrections had budgeted this year to hold 300 people at any given time in "detention," Sears said, referring to people being held without bail, or for lack of bail, who are facing pending charges. Right now, the state has 430 in detention, which he suspects is a result of the drug sweeps. He said the perception that all suspected dealers are being let go immediately is incorrect.
The state has about 1,600 beds for prisoners. Sears said a person under detention cannot be sent to an out-of-state facility, but one serving a sentence can. Those under sentence are moved to make room for those in detention. Keeping a prisoner held out of state costs about $24,000 per year, Sears said.
According to Sears, more treatment sources are needed, as what is available now is limited and scattered. Sears said efforts to create a methadone clinic in Rutland with case managers in towns like Bennington have been slow. He would like to begin focusing on treatment options for drug addicts and increase education efforts to prevent people from getting addicted in the first place, but also intends to pursue increasing the penalties for possessing weapons while selling drugs, and home invasions, which are becoming more frequent and tied to drug activity.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.