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Burlington officials hold second public safety forum focused on substance use disorder and property crime

Burlington City Police car (file)
Pat Bradley
Burlington City Police car (file)

Burlington, Vermont officials have held two public safety community forums this month. The latest looked at challenges and potential solutions regarding substance use disorder and associated property crimes.

In October, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution requiring the city to hold public forums on public health and safety issues. A gathering on December 14th focused on drug trafficking and gun crime.

Five days later, Council President and Public Safety Committee Chair Karen Paul introduced a second forum saying most people recognize the basic human needs of shelter, food and clothing but said safety and security should be included in that conversation.

“Following the global pandemic that we all lived through we saw what has been an uneven and inequitable economic recovery,” said Paul. “That has forced too many to be unsheltered and struggling for basic necessities. And it’s no secret that our community’s health and safety are being challenged with unprecedented crime, a growing need for mental health supports and an influx of synthetic drugs among other challenges. So it is against this backdrop that the Public Safety Committee brought to the Burlington City Council a resolution declaring the unprecedented increase in drug use to be our city’s top public health and public safety priority.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine offered statistics and said addressing substance use disorder is among the most complex public health and safety challenges officials are facing.

“I would posit that the number of individuals is actually not increasing, but what has changed is that the problem is intensifying due to the fact that there’s more public use of these substances and, very importantly, because of the toxicity of the drug supply,” Levine said. “Keep in mind that, actually, alcohol is the most commonly used substance. Alcohol attributed deaths and years of potential life lost each increased by 36-percent from 2017 to 2021. Also stimulant use is on the rise and research indicates that stimulants lead to a higher risk of criminal behavior in part because their effects can include aggressiveness. And finally Vermont is seeing increases in adult use hospitalizations and poisonings from cannabis.”

U.S. Attorney for Vermont Nikolas Kerest explained the role of what he called the branch office for the Department of Justice in the state and said their current priority is to address violent crime.

“We are taking more violent crime cases than we have historically,” said Kerest. “Often those cases overlap with drug crime in Vermont. Unfortunately, almost every drug case that we see involves some element of violence. We recognize that prosecution plays only one part in the solutions that we’re trying to bring to bear, but that is what we do.”

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform operates a recovery center in Burlington. Director of Client Services Jess Kirby says low barrier and easy access to treatment is needed.

“People are really struggling,” said Kirby. “We have a housing crisis. We have a COVID-19 crisis. We have a drug crisis where the drugs are more dangerous than ever, where the impact on the community is higher than ever and people are really in desperate need of low barrier services and really need to be able to just walk in, no appointment necessary, and get access to various forms of help. I think a lot of people think that help is out there and it’s easy to get if you really want it. And it’s not easy at all. It’s actually really, really hard especially when you have no place to sleep. You have no phone to set an alarm for an appointment. You know it is really hard for people to get the help they need. Places are struggling with staffing. We need to do all we can to really reduce the barriers for people as much as possible and expand services.”

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