Brattleboro police chief calls for community approach to opioid crisis

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BRATTLEBORO — All hands should be on deck when dealing with the opioid crisis, according to Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald.

That means teachers, parents, neighbors, landlords, property owners, police, emergency responders and social workers.

"We all have a responsibility in this," Fitzgerald said Tuesday at a community forum on the subject.

According to state statistics shared by the chief, 21,528 "bags" of heroin — each worth between $10 and $15 — were seized in Vermont in 2015. That year, 518 grams — considered to be "bulk" — were also taken by police. Altogether, the street value was estimated to be $599,979.

This year in Vermont, 5,346 more bags and 1,097 more grams were seized than last year for a total street value of $1,202,850. That's an almost $603,000 increase over last year.

"It's out there. We're being aggressive. Obviously this is statewide. No community in Vermont is immune," Fitzgerald said. "What's scary is what we don't find."

So far this year, there have been 26 overdoses in Brattleboro. Thirteen were caused by heroin, with one death, and seven of them were from pharmaceuticals; one death by overdose involved crack-cocaine inhalants and the other five were from unknown causes.

"We have a serious problem in our town we really need to stand up and notice," Fitzgerald said. "We have our work cut out for us."

Substance abuse disorders, in the Brattleboro Police Department's view, are diseases that can be prevented, treated and recovered from. Fitzgerald said the department recently changed its mission statement after he told officers his philosophy and vision. He pointed specifically to the last sentence: "While serving the community, we recognize the differences in the conduct of people who need our help, those who make poor decisions and those who choose to victimize others."

The majority of problems, Fitzgerald said, are "a function of the drug environment," or the area and market where drugs can be readily purchased.

"Everybody knows where it is," he said, noting that the places are usually defined by geographical boundaries. He dismissed the notion that "drug environments" quickly move to a new location once there's a bust, saying "it takes years to get reestablished."

Crime "hot spots" are in areas of towns where people are assaulted, caught trespassing, and cited for public drunkenness or urination and petty theft. These issues can make public spaces — like sidewalks, parks, buildings and stores — unusable. People are comfortable selling drugs there, Fitzgerald said, because they are surrounded by others who are not going to talk to the police. Residents living there have likely accepted that such behavior is going to occur.

"The environment is much more of a concern than the addiction," Fitzgerald told forum attendees. "You're here because you've been exposed to this and you're very knowledgable about what's going on."

The attention drug dealers and users are getting does not bother them, he said before explaining how officers deal with drug activity. The basis for reasonable suspicion is "slight proof or opinion," according to its legal definition. Police can investigate but "we do have our limits," said Fitzgerald.

"We can ask a couple of questions. We can ID. If we have nothing further to go on that brings us to probable cause, facts and circumstances, our interaction ends," he continued. "It's called the Constitution. It's civil liberties. No matter what you say, we can't do anything and you wouldn't want us to do anything."

Fitzgerald said the process can be frustrating for residents who submit complaints to the department and see no changes. Probable cause, needed in order for an arrest to occur, is defined by evidence which "would make a reasonable and prudent person believe that a crime had been committed and that a particular person had committed it."

"We have to prioritize our calls," Fitzgerald told attendees while explaining his department's own struggles with calls about drug deals. "What happens behind the scenes is what a lot of people don't understand."

Calls about suspicious behavior may not result in an arrest right away. The information goes into a database, Fitzgerald said. If a significant number of calls continue coming in about a particular neighborhood or section of town, it may be discussed during roll call. Police presence may be beefed up in that area in response.

Fitzgerald urged residents to call the department if they see something suspicious. A dispatcher will take down information and pass it on to the officer.

"If you want to talk to an officer, ask for the on-duty supervisor. There's always a supervisor on. Please don't ask to speak with me," Fitzgerald said. "My wife would disagree, but I'm not there 24/7."

Accepted also are anonymous tips.

Everyone wants to be sober or in treatment when they're in handcuffs, Fitzgerald said. But an arrest offers his department the opportunity to talk with people struggling with drugs.

"We work through various programs to educate," Fitzgerald said, noting his department's presence at centers providing services around homelessness and recovery from drugs and alcohol. "We don't want people to look at us as the enemies, as the bad guys. If you come to the Brattleboro P.D., we'll give you the resources you need."

The department collects pharmaceuticals all year round as opposed to other places where federal grants only allow for it to occur twice a year.

Fitzgerald said he was very proud of the way his department was working with other local, state, and federal agencies. A social worker is part of his department's staff.

"I think we're looking at this intelligently and realistically. Good job by all," he said. "There's certainly a lot of support, a lot of help."

Cassandra Holloway, director of Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, commended local community policing on the opioid issue and compared the response to national trends, calling it "a wonderful shift."

"This is a really healthy community in a whole lot of ways," said Rick Bates, supervisor of the Brattleboro Probation and Parole Office. "There's treatment you can get."

Employers are not necessarily ruling out people based on criminal records. Bates said some employers seek him out for prospects, knowing a probation officer will be watching over the person.

Aids Project of Southern Vermont is now running a needle-exchange program every first and third Tuesday of the month at 15 Grove Street from 9 a.m. to noon. The first date clean needles will be available to members is Nov. 1. To join, call 802-254-4444.

The state reported 39 overdose fatalities from opioids as of Oct. 1 this year. Last year, the number reached 75. That was "a horrific year," said Fitzgerald. "It was the highest year in the [last] six years."

Both 2011 and 2014 had 61 deaths in Vermont attributed to opioids. In 2010, there were 41. In 2012, 50. In 2013, 69.

No "mechanism" is currently in place to track the use of Narcan around the state, Fitzgerald noted, the drug that is being used to prevent overdoses.

In 2013, Brattleboro had 30 overdoses. Two were caused by heroin and 19 had to do with pharmaceuticals. Nine were from unknown causes. Overdoses claimed the lives of two people; one was due to heroin and the other pharmaceuticals.

In 2014, there were 38 overdoses in Brattleboro. Eight were attributed to heroin, including one death. Pharmaceuticals were blamed for 16 of the overdoses. Fourteen of them had unknown causes.

In 2015, the town saw 22 overdoses. Three were associated with heroin, including one death. Sixteen people overdosed using pharmaceuticals, which caused one death. Three of the overdoses had unknown causes.

Fentanyl was another concern for forum attendees. The drug is about "100 times stronger than heroin," said Fitzgerald.

"It was started as an oncology drug that was a super strong drug that was only used for people in terminal stages for pain relief," Vermont Department of Health Brattleboro District Director Prudence MacKinney said. "Now it's been able to be synthesized. So it's out on the street in a big way."

Users are getting more than they expect when the drug is mixed in with heroin, said Holloway.

Contact Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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