A homeless man was camped out in the parking garage at the transportation center in downtown Brattleboro.

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BENNINGTON — Sometimes it feels like Bennington’s alone in its battle against opiate addiction and the gang-related crime and violence dragging behind in its wake.

In fact, we are far from alone, and borrowing from baseball great Yogi Berra, today’s problem is deja vu all over again.

The presence of gangs in Vermont is not new. In fact, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Los Solidas gang from Hartford, Conn., moved into Rutland, began to recruit local youth to become members, and set up drug-distribution networks.

As a reporter for the Associated Press at the time, I visited Rutland and spoke with local business owners and residents who expressed dismay that gangs – more closely associated with dense urban cities and almost unheard of in rural communities – had moved into town. It didn’t seem possible. And yet, they said, the gang presence was obvious, and locals were frightened and avoiding parts of town where Los Solidas was operating.

Rutland Police took a hardline approach. Then-Rutland Police Det. Ray Lamoria and his department consulted regional and federal anti-gang experts, set up a local gang task force, but more importantly, made life for gang members as difficult as possible. Lamoria said at the time that known gang members would be surprised to be greeted by a police officer when they left their house each day.

That seemed to work, and the visible gang presence faded.

Bennington police appear to be taking a similar tack, repeatedly raiding properties around town that house reputed drug dealers – often alleged gang members – with prosecutors hitting them with drug and weapons charges. Their faces and addresses become public, it’s a little harder to do business in Bennington, and a signal is sent to others that police will regularly, repeatedly try to shut down their drug operations.

Too often, these alleged offenders are released back into the community, which is frustrating. But if police stick to this hardline approach, the alleged criminals will know to expect another raid interfering with their ability to do business in Bennington. That’s a good thing.

Lest we think this is Bennington’s problem, think again. Two people were injured in shootings in downtown Burlington this weekend, marking the 20th gunfire incident this year. Springfield has felt like a bit of shooting gallery in recent months, as well, the latest gunfire coming Thursday around 1 a.m. In June, a 38-year-old man was killed in Springfield by a gunshot wound to the head. A suspected gang-related murder occurred on a rural roadside in Danby earlier this year.

And last week Brattleboro Reformer reporter Bob Audette walked around his downtown talking to local business owners and residents and visitors about how safe they feel in the city (to read the full story, see Page A3). Generally, they feel safe; however, there are places – like the city’s parking garage – where they are reluctant to go, and they worry that Brattleboro is less safe than in the past.

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I suspect Bennington residents would respond similarly: This is generally a safe and wonderful town, but there are streets to avoid at night, and we feel less safe than even a few years ago.

So what’s to be done?

First, get at the root of the problem – drug addiction. Reduce the market that is drawing bad players here. Put funding and commitment behind drug prevention programs, recovery programs, transitional housing to help those struggling with addiction find the support to stay sober. Bennington needs a Hub (a comprehensive program to provide daily support for those with complex addictions), which is reportedly in the works.

Because this problem is being felt on a national scale, our congressional delegation must fight for additional funding from Washington D.C. that earmarks a fair share for smaller, rural communities like Vermont.

State lawmakers should tackle this problem head-on. We shouldn’t have to turn to federal charges to ensure adequate consequences. Are our laws appropriate to deal with the out-of-state players bringing drugs and violence into our downtowns — particularly the teenagers who can be among the worst offenders? Is our state capable of jailing the professional dealers and gun suppliers? Do the courts have the tools needed to hold these alleged offenders rather than releasing them back onto the streets?

Keep up the law enforcement pressure against those coming to Vermont and Bennington from elsewhere to grow their drug and weapons markets. This cannot be a Bennington-only effort because it is not a Bennington-only problem. In fact, it was a Springfield man who was shot and killed in downtown Bennington recently. This problem travels, it crosses state and local borders. The solutions must travel as well.

And let’s learn from each other. Law enforcement and the recovery community should be – in many cases probably are – in touch with each other and their counterparts throughout the Northeast, including our crime-feeder communities in Massachusetts and New York. Let’s keep the community informed and involved where practical so everyone knows what’s being done at all levels to make our community healthier and safer.

Rutland created Project Vision in 2012 to bring together all the players in the community with a stake in the opioid problem – and the violence it fosters – to the table, including health and social services, community and religious leaders, housing groups, mental health teams and others committed to sharing information and finding solutions. Bennington could learn from this model – both what works, and what doesn’t.

It’s easy to think of Bennington as an island, with problems that are only ours to solve. In fact, drugs, gangs and weapons are not only Bennington’s problems; sadly, they are universal.

Susan Allen is managing editor of the Bennington Banner, located at 423 Main Street. “View from 423 Main” is an occasional column.


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