BENNINGTON — Bennington stands at a crossroads.
On the one hand, this is the place to live. Just ask the urban dwellers who fled the pandemic to the sanctuary of Vermont. In Bennington, that has translated to young families moving to town, increased diversity among our neighbors, resurrected festivals and concerts, and ribbon cuttings almost weekly as businesses open, re-open and expand.
Yet our community — and our state — are experiencing a rise in violent crime that is relatively new, unsettling and impossible to ignore.
One beautiful April day, Bennington celebrated a ribbon-cutting for an expanded business on Main Street; three nights later, Bennington Police conducted a drug raid of apartments just blocks away that led to the arrest of half-dozen young people and allegations of kidnapping, robbery and gun possession.
That’s the dichotomy this town — and this state — is experiencing.
Last weekend alone there were reports of shots fired in Bennington (a man on Pleasant Street was shot after trying to stab another man), Burlington, Waterbury and Woodbury. There have been at least five shootings in Springfield, including the death of a man who was shot in the head. A Brattleboro man pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court last week to a charge of illegal possession of four firearms by a convicted felon.
That’s the short list.
“I’ve been here for over 32 years, and I’ve never seen the level of violence that we’re seeing now,” Paul Doucette, Bennington Police Department’s chief of police, told the Banner recently.
It wasn’t that long ago when reports of shootings were rare, and intentional killings rarer still. It was almost unimaginable that a teenager from Springfield, Mass., could be shot to death on an isolated road in rural Danby, possibly a gang killing. That is no longer the case.
Is the rise in violence drug-related, gang-related or linked to a mental health crisis? Is our judiciary too quick to let offenders out of prison, especially without the support and treatment services they need? Are our guns laws too lenient? Are we under-committed to substance use and mental health services? Are we at risk of losing too many of this young generation of Vermonters? Are we unprepared to face this climate of violence in our bucolic state?
Former Public Safety Commissioner Michael Shirling was right when he said there is no single fix to the problem. The solution is comprehensive: Education and prevention; diversion and treatment (including mental health services); and court reforms. I would also add a continued strong law enforcement presence to ensure there are consequences for criminal behavior. Let’s make dealing drugs and guns in Bennington much more difficult.
But the first step is to face the obvious: Vermont is experiencing a wave of violence driven by complex factors without easy solutions.
While that’s not a popular position for those charged with promoting this town or the state, this is a discussion the community ignores at its own peril. Bad things fester and multiply when we look the other way. And focusing on our problems, like gun violence, doesn’t take anything away from the tremendous strides this town has made in terms of economic and social growth. Bennington has much to be proud of. Tackling this crime epidemic is vital to preserving what we love best about this community.
Here’s to hoping the Bennington Select Board and the Vermont Legislature have honest discussions of our challenges and advance a comprehensive array of solutions.