In Rutland, Vt., a rare glimmer of hope in battle against opioid addiction
RUTLAND, Vt. — It’s morning, and local and State Police cruisers already are crisscrossing an opioid-ravaged neighborhood of this small city. Rutland police Sergeant Matthew Prouty slows to a crawl past boarded-up homes. His radio crackles with questions about an out-of-state license plate.
Within minutes, a state trooper has pulled over a car and put a Rutland mother of five through a battery of drug-sobriety tests. Neighbors stop and watch, some on the sidewalk, some on their porches.
This small grid of blighted streets in the city’s Northwest section is the hardest-hit neighborhood in perhaps the hardest-hit community in a state reeling from opioid addiction. But house by house, block by block, the city is working to reclaim its streets — offering a rare glimmer of hope in the fatal opioid crisis that has afflicted communities across New England.
In Rutland, the number of crimes related to drug use is plummeting, hundreds of people are receiving addiction treatment, and notorious drug dens are being razed and replaced by parks. It’s an aggressive counterattack, called Project Vision, that has enlisted residents and community leaders in a sweeping collaboration that is gaining national attention.
“We’re a community on the rise,” said Sandy Fitzgerald, a 59-year-old woman who stood near a Northwest intersection long known for its brazen drug trade. A few weeks ago, a block party was held there.
The all-hands-on-deck philosophy behind Project Vision is familiar to many communities battling the opioid scourge: By sharing ideas and resources, cities and towns can be more effective.
But Rutland, population 16,500, has embraced that thinking in a big way. Since it was launched in late 2012, before opioid addiction began gaining widespread attention, Project Vision has attracted more than 300 members from 100 disparate agencies, and they meet regularly.
Mental health clinicians and correction officers, among others, are embedded in the police station to help officers take back the city. Social workers accompany police on some calls; advocates for victims of domestic violence ride along, too.
It’s an open-arms approach that seeks to help troubled residents rather than simply build up arrest and incarceration numbers.
“It’s not a police problem that needs to be solved. It’s not a health problem. It’s a community coming together,” said police Commander Scott Tucker, executive director of Project Vision. “Building great neighborhoods is really the focus of what everybody is trying to do.”
On Tuesday, in Chicago, Rutland police planned to speak to the International Association of Chiefs of Police about their approach to opioid addiction. It’s a challenge starkly at odds with the idyllic view of Vermont as a laid-back, bucolic paradise.
Rutland had once been a railroad hub that shipped marble worldwide from nearby quarries. But when that industry declined, many residents moved out and sold their homes to indifferent landlords who subdivided them into low-rent apartments.
Lorraine Bedard, 82, lives in the Northwest home she has shared with her husband, Donald, since the late 1950s. The two-story house is neat and well-maintained, but nearby is a succession of boarded-up and dilapidated homes with a sordid history of drug use.
“It was heartbreaking,” Bedard said of the neighborhood’s transformation from family-friendly to dangerous. Several residents said that despite the improvements, they will not allow their children to walk to a nearby park, even in daylight.
“This area is drug central,” said James Hodgdon, 42, a recovering opioid addict, as he stood a block away. “You have crack houses. You have heroin houses.”
A sense of safety is slowly returning. Donald Bedard, who owns a small store across from his home, credits an increased police presence. Sometimes, he said, officers spend an entire afternoon in the neighborhood, walking from door to door, talking with residents, listening to concerns and suggestions.
It’s old-school policing, complemented by intense attention to data that direct officers to the worst problem areas. Once there, Prouty said, police might park their cruisers outside a suspect’s home for a weekend or pull up chairs on the sidewalk and watch for hours.
“We can make a location radioactive,” Prouty said.
Such attention is part of a plan to disrupt the markets where drug buyers and sellers come together, a strategy encouraged by David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities, a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Eliminating either the supply of drugs or the demand for them has proven impossible, said Kennedy, who helped devise Operation Ceasefire in Boston, the 1990s effort to curb youth gun violence. But by disrupting the marketplaces — by clearing them of drug traffic and keeping them clear — the areas eventually are no longer seen as drug markets and return to normal, Kennedy said.
The strategy is paying off in Rutland, authorities said.
Since fiscal 2013, crimes linked to drug use have dropped dramatically. Burglaries are down 53 percent; larceny and theft from motor vehicles, 31 percent; disorderly conduct, 37 percent; and vandalism, 49 percent.
“People are beginning to speak out. Before, they were scared,” said the Rev. Hannah Rogers, pastor of Rutland United Methodist Church.
The road to hope also is being paved at a downtown drug clinic, which opened in 2013 and now provides treatment to more than 400 people. And it’s being built nail by nail in the Northwest neighborhood, where private investors are renovating crumbling and abandoned homes.
Authorities here shrug their shoulders when asked why Rutland became a regional hub for heroin. Kennedy said the choice of Rutland might simply be an accident that, through word of mouth, shifted into a crisis.
“Brooklyn dealers came up and off-loaded their product, and people from other neighborhoods started going into the neighborhoods where heroin was being sold. Then, others from the outside came in,” Kennedy said.
Although Rutland is seeing positive signs, opioid addiction might take generations to curb in a city where the menacing and the mundane are close together. On one block, Prouty, the police sergeant, pointed to a school, a church, a doctor’s office, and a den of drugs and prostitution.
“I bet you there is not one family in this whole county who does not have somebody who has an addiction issue” with drugs or alcohol, said Tracie Hauck, director of the Turning Point Center of Rutland, which offers counseling and drug-prevention services.
Still, Rutland officials say they have found something in their mix of collaboration and pinpoint policing.
“There’s violent people out there, and there are people creating chaos out there, and those people need to spend time in jail,” said Tucker, the police commander. “But there are also those who have created a mess out of their lives and deserve a second chance.”