Tragedy Moves A Community To Combat Drug Addiction

Jan 30, 2016
Originally published on January 30, 2016 10:29 am

When it comes to fighting addiction, they say you have to hit bottom. For Rutland, Vt., a town of 17,000 devastated by heroin, the bottom came in September 2012.

A popular high school senior was struck and killed by a driver who was high. Local resident Joe Kraus says the tragedy galvanized the community.

"People who perhaps never would have gotten involved in a meaningful way decided it was time to get involved," he says.

And they did. City officials, police and neighborhood activists came together to create a grassroots organization called "Project VISION." It was a small group of people with big goals — to reduce drug-related crime, improve treatment and clean up troubled neighborhoods.

More than three years later, the group membership had grown to nearly 300 people. Local officials, law enforcement, nonprofits, service organizations, state agencies and church groups participated in the effort, with 60 to 80 people regularly attending the group's monthly meetings.

Coming Together For Solutions

They discuss different programs and issues in the meetings. Bradley GoodHale, a crime analyst with the Rutland City Police Department, says the police are using college interns to make real-time crime data easier to use and access.

Another committee plans to launch a program to help pregnant women with opiate addiction, one that includes not just substance abuse treatment but also parenting classes and financial advice.

City officials say it's discussions like these that helped open a long awaited methadone clinic in 2013, something local residents had fought for years.

Today, GoodHale says more than 750 people are getting drugs that reduce opiate cravings like methadone and buprenorphine, treatment that wasn't widely available in Rutland before. Opiate is class of drugs that includes codeine, morphine and heroin.

"We see those 750 people no longer have to commit crimes in order to feed their addictions 'cause they are getting treatment," GoodHale says.

In the last two years burglaries have dropped 60 percent in Rutland while thefts, including shoplifting are down 45 percent. Noise and disorderly conduct complaints are also down.

Improving Neighborhoods

Longtime Rutland resident Steve McKearin sees improvement in the neighborhood.

"It's doing a lot better than it was two years ago, three years ago, that's for sure," McKearin says.

He lives in a Rutland neighborhood that has been hammered by drugs and crime.

"Oh yeah a lot of drug deals went down on this street. You'd see a lot of them. And a lot of that's been curbed," he says.

The city has focused intense renovation efforts in this neighborhood. A long-awaited $5 million sewer upgrade and repaving project was completed and extra money was spent to repair sidewalks and improve lighting.

McKearin points across the street to a rundown home a local housing agency is renovating. It's part of a grant-funded effort to reduce blight, create more affordable single-family housing and boost homeownership in this part of the city.

"Getting rid of some of these houses with drug addicts in them, squatting in them and getting more single family homes in here, getting rid of some of these big apartments and be a neighborhood like it used to be when I grew up," he says.

Police Changing Tactics

Rutland Police Commander Scott Tucker says before 2012, police had been trying to arrest their way out of the heroin problem.

While drug trafficking won't be tolerated in the city, he says police have changed their approach toward offenders who want to stop using.

"We're giving them the message that the community is a caring community — there are resources available if you want to get help to get off your addicted lifestyle," Tucker says.

Police also created a new unit within their department. The local women's shelter, state attorney's office, corrections department and local mental health agency, now have staff embedded there. Tucker says their input, plus more calls from the community are helping police better identify, address, and track crimes in the city.

David Kennedy directs the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He was brought in to consult with Rutland on its heroin problem.

"Lots of cities have treatment and lots of cities do neighborhood work," Kennedy says. "What is unique about what Rutland did was that it stepped back, looked very deliberately at the functioning of how Rutland was now a persistent regional, heroin distribution hub."

And he says city officials did whatever it took to disrupt the local marketplace. Efforts to expand treatment reduced customers, and those selling were prosecuted. Kennedy says police made it very difficult for new dealers to move in.

"Literally everything from additional criminal investigations to parking a car in front of this house so that nobody would be stupid enough to walk up to the front door and buy heroin," he says. "And it looks at this point like they've made at least very, very serious dent in it. Things are a lot better."

While burglaries and thefts are down in Rutland, aggravated assaults, including domestic violence, are up. Police aren't sure why but say it may be due to newer more comprehensive data collection. They hope the tools that helped lower drug related crimes will help reduce the violence.

Ongoing Fight Against Addiction

Rutland City Mayor Christoper Louras says he feels hopeful seeing so many people continue to come together each month, but he admits the city's fight against addiction will be ongoing.

"This is nothing where... you can't declare victory and go home. We need to fully institutionalize the change in culture in this community, in the police department and the change in culture with our non-traditional partners," Louras says. "So that's why we need to keep having these meetings."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When it comes to fighting addiction, they say you have to hit rock bottom. For Rutland, Vt., a town of 17,000 that's been devastated by heroin, that rock bottom came in September 2012. A popular high school senior was struck and killed by a driver who was high. Local resident Joe Kraus says the tragedy galvanized his community.

JOE KRAUS: People who perhaps never would've gotten involved in a meaningful way decided it was time to get involved.

SIMON: City officials, police and neighborhood activists created a grassroots organization to reclaim Rutland called Project Vision. Vermont Public Radio's Nina - forgive me - Nina Keck has more.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: It started with a small group and big goals. Reduce drug-related crime, improve treatment, and clean up troubled neighborhoods. More than three years later, Project Vision has nearly 300 members, including local officials, law enforcement, nonprofits, service organizations, state agencies and church groups. Between 60 and 80 people regularly attend the monthly meetings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm looking for interns...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I got you covered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...For January.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let's do it. We'll talk. I got you covered.

KECK: Bradley GoodHale, a crime analyst with the Rutland City Police Department, sits with a group that works on law enforcement issues. GoodHale explains how the police are using college interns to make real-time crime data easier to use and access. Across the room, members of another Project Vision committee talk about a program they want to launch for pregnant women with opiate addiction.

BRADLEY GOODHALE: It'll be, like, four, five, six hours a day, and it'll be very intense, but it's going to have more than just substance abuse treatment. It'll have parenting classes, about relationships, codependency.

KECK: City officials say it's discussions like these that helped open a long-awaited methadone clinic in 2013, something local residents had fought for years. Today, GoodHale says more than 750 people are getting drugs that reduce opiate cravings, like methadone and buprenorphine, treatment that wasn't widely available in Rutland before.

GOODHALE: We see those 750 people no longer have to commit crimes in order to feed their addictions because they are getting treatment.

KECK: In the last two years, burglaries have dropped 60 percent in Rutland while thefts, including shoplifting, are down 45 percent. Noise and disorderly conduct complaints are also down.

STEVE MCKEARIN: We're doing a lot better than it was two years ago, three years ago, that's for sure.

KECK: Longtime Rutland resident Steve McKearin lives in a neighborhood that's been hammered by drugs and crime.

MCKEARIN: Oh, yeah, a lot of drug deals went down on the streets. You would see a lot of them. And a lot of that's been curbed.

KECK: The city has focused intense renovation efforts in this neighborhood. A long-awaited $5 million sewer upgrade and repaving project was completed. Extra money was spent to repair sidewalks and improve lighting. Steve McKearin points across the street to a rundown home a local housing agency is renovating. It's part of a grant-funded effort to reduce blight, create more affordable single-family housing and boost homeownership in this part of the city.

MCKEARIN: Getting rid of some of these houses with drug addicts in them, you know, squatting in them, getting more single-family homes in here and getting rid of some of these big apartments and be a neighborhood like it used to be when I grew up.

KECK: Rutland Police Commander Scott Tucker says before 2012, police had been trying to arrest their way out of the heroin problem. While drug trafficking won't be tolerated in the city, he says police have changed their approach toward offenders who want to stop using.

SCOTT TUCKER: We're giving them the message that the community is a caring community. There are resources available if you want to get help to get off your addicted lifestyle.

KECK: Police also created a new unit within their department. The local women's shelter, state's attorney's office, corrections department and local mental health agency now have staff embedded there. Tucker says their input, plus more calls from the community, are helping police better identify, address and track crimes in the city.

DAVID KENNEDY: Lots of cities have treatment. Lots of cities do neighborhood work.

KECK: David Kennedy directs the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He consulted with Rutland on its heroin problem.

KENNEDY: What is unique about what Rutland did was that it stepped back, looked very deliberately at the functioning of how Rutland was now a persistent regional, heroin distribution hub.

KECK: And he says city officials did whatever it took to disrupt the local marketplace. Expanding treatment reduced customers. Those selling were prosecuted. And Kennedy says police made it very difficult for new dealers to move in.

KENNEDY: Literally everything from additional criminal investigations to parking a car in front of this house so that nobody would be stupid enough to walk up to the front door and buy heroin, and it looks at this point like they've made at least a very, very serious dent in it. Things are a lot better.

KECK: More treatment is still needed. And while burglaries and thefts are down in Rutland, aggravated assaults, including domestic violence, are up. Police aren't sure why but say it may be due to newer more comprehensive data collection. They hope the tools that helped lower drug-related crimes will help reduce the violence. Back at the Project Vision meeting, Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras stands at the back of the room. Seeing so many people continue to come together each month makes him hopeful, but he admits the city's fight against addiction will be ongoing.

CHRISTOPHER LOURAS: You can't declare victory and go home. We need to fully institutionalize the change in culture in this community, in the police department, the change in culture with our nontraditional partners. So that's why we need to keep having these meetings.

KECK: Like anyone in recovery will tell you, your plan only works if you work it. For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.