On November 8, 2023

Rutland leaders tell a frustrated crowd what they can and can’t do to address crime

 

By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Local and county leaders gathered at the Paramount Theatre Thursday night to confront crime in the city and explain to an often disgruntled audience what they can — and can’t — do to address it.

Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, summed up the night by pinning responsibility squarely on the Legislature: “The whole weight is on us, plain and simple.” 

Blaming state policies took a different tone when espoused by the panel’s non-legislative members, such as Rutland Mayor Mike Doenges, Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen and Rutland County State’s Attorney Ian Sullivan, who decried their tied hands when it comes to dealing with increasingly frequent misdemeanors such as petit larceny and unlawful trespassing. 

Rutland City policing data shows larcenies more than doubled between 2019 and 2022, though total personal property thefts remain lower than an early 2010s peak. Repeat offenders make up an increasing percentage of defendants, the mayor has said. 

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, who emceed the evening, lobbed questions submitted ahead of time to the leaders on the stage. The night did not include live questions asked by citizens, which was announced both before and during the meeting to the audible dismay of some attendees.

Collamore began by highlighting the eight homicides in Vermont last month — including that of Vermont State University Dean Honoree Fleming, who was killed while walking a popular path in Castleton — and by expressing frustration at the process of citing and releasing people accused of lower-level crimes while they await trial. 

“The current situation is not one which bodes well for the public to feel safe,” Collamore said, eliciting “hear-hears” from the crowd as he cited an oft-quoted line from “Network,” the 1976 film: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

With Gov. Phil Scott an ever-visible onlooker seated near the stage, other panelists — including Project Vision Commander Matt Prouty, Vermont Department of Corrections Chief of Operations Al Cormier, Rep. Will Notte, D-Rutland City, and Sen. Terry Williams, R-Rutland — addressed a crowd that nearly filled out the theater’s first floor. 

“Our authority is really somewhat limited, and it’s limited by statute,” said Kilcullen, the police chief.

He told a story about responding to an in-progress theft from a vehicle. Despite catching the person in the act of rooting through the car, because nothing had yet been stolen, the private property was not posted against trespassing, and the person had not been issued a no trespassing order, no crime was being committed, Kilcullen said.

Addressing community concerns about insufficient or nonexistent bail in criminal cases, Sullivan, the county’s state’s attorney, said that, unlike in other states, bail in Vermont can be set only to prevent someone from fleeing the area, not to compel someone to come to court.

“Bail cannot be imposed to punish,” Sullivan said. “It cannot be imposed for public safety.”

Strategies for combating crime using existing tools fell largely into two categories: using data-driven approaches, such as policing known high-crime areas like the downtown plaza, the police chief said, and working to treat substance use disorder, a primary driver of Rutland’s crime, according to the panelists.

In the city, 75% of retail thefts are committed by “known substance users,” Mayor Doenges told the crowd. 

The police department recently hired two new community resource specialists, Kilcullen said: civilian staff members who devote time to connecting people to resources such as substance use treatment. 

Matt Prouty, police commander and the leader of Rutland’s health and social service coalition Project Vision, spoke to the need to keep life safety at the forefront of the city’s public safety work. “I don’t care how you feel about the individual; we’re going to try to save lives,” he said, adding that getting one person sober can have cumulative downstream effects that reduce crime and strengthen community ties.

State’s Attorney Sullivan talked through Vermont’s treatment court program, which allows people who plead guilty to pursue drug treatment in lieu of punishment, though incarceration remains an option if a person violates conditions. 

“Durable, lasting sobriety for people, in my view, is one of the best public safety outcomes we could get,” he said, drawing some of the night’s loudest applause. 

The lawmakers on stage outlined some of the bills they hoped to pass next session. Rep. Notte, who sat next to fellow House Judiciary member Tom Burditt, described a bill he plans to introduce that in certain circumstances would convert multiple misdemeanors committed within close succession into a felony charge, decreasing court backlogs and increasing punishment. 

Burditt, who said he supported the legislation, stressed his desire for stricter laws, saying, “The pendulum has gone too far as far as compassion goes.”

The two-hour talk featured frequent audience interruptions. Some hecklers yelled questions that went unanswered, while others grumbled more general “boos” and “bullshits.” As the conversation turned to how residents could feel safe downtown at night, shouts of “carry a gun” and “take it into your own hands” emerged from the crowd.

“For the most part, it was unruly to a certain degree,” Collamore said in his closing remarks.

The mayor didn’t disagree.

“I appreciate the passion that you all have,” Doenges said. “I want to be receptive to that.”

 

 

By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Local and county leaders addressed a rowdy crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland.

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