By Alis Headlam
It was a perfect storm. Jim Baker arrived in Rutland to take the helm as chief of police at a time when drugs, housing and crime were devastating the city. This was 2012. A vision was created under his leadership with the help of Joan Gamble and a large group of concerned citizens: “Rutland, one of the healthiest, safest and happiest communities in America.” That vision is still the guiding force today, eight years later, and because of a collaborative effort that has united agencies with its mission to promote collaboration for the greater good it has been an exciting and productive journey. For the 500 or so members who maintain participation through monthly meetings facilitated by Joe Kraus and a listserv, efforts have evolved to “See a need. Meet a need.”
Project VISION became a reality under Baker’s time as chief, but it was under the guidance of its executive directors that it flourished. First, Commander Scott Tucker took the helm, and now Commander Matt Prouty is directing activity. Most recently, VISION has undergone a strategic revision to meet the changing needs of the community. This effort continues to offer a model of community-in-action that is unique and addresses the many challenges facing cities across the country today.
Project VISION’s collaborative efforts brought agencies together to address housing blight, the drug epidemic, crime and safety and strengthening of neighborhoods. Under this model, the northwest neighborhood of the city was the target because of its previous neglect. Today, that neighborhood has benefitted from efforts to renovate housing, beautify the neighborhood and promote addiction recovery. It has gone from an area of neglect to one that promotes pride and well-being.
The city as a whole has also benefited. It is impossible to travel through the city and not see the impact of Project VISION and its partners. Food drives, fundraising efforts, activities for children, creation of parks and recreational activities all have been supported by the collaborative efforts. There is a sense that even though this continues to be a city that struggles with the downturn of the economy, it is a city that has promise and hope.
Under the guidance of the police department, Project VISION created a center above the police station. In this center, various human service agencies have offices, including for a clinical mental health expert and a community response team made up of several police officers.
The Community Rehabilitation and Treatment program (CRT) emerged out of Project VISION that places Rutland in a unique spot in the country. With agencies close at hand, officers can communicate in real time to understand challenges facing people in need. The clinician, Alecia Armstrong, is available to go out on police calls so that she can help de-escalate difficult situations when there is a mental health crisis.
Connections to probation and parole officers provide additional opportunities to deal with people who are in trouble. There is a member of this department in the Project VISION center as well as an expert who maintains statistics for the department and officers who conduct investigations. All of these people are the glue that holds investigation and community policing together.
As Project VISION continues to thrive in 2020, it is common to find 80-100 people at each meeting. Even during the Covid-19 lockdown, meetings have continued to flourish by using Zoom. What is really impressive about this effort is that even after eight years, VISION is becoming stronger and more vital to the functioning of a healthy community. During the recent strategic rethinking, it became clear that Rutland is ready to increase its focus on neighborhood engagement, strengthening programs for youth, addressing homelessness, food instability and a host of other needs that pop up from time to time in the city.
One of the strongest committees to emerge out of Project VISION was a committee that initially addressed the drug epidemic. However, that health committee has morphed because of the realization that drug addiction needs cannot be met through recovery alone. With the assistance of Jeff Mckee from Rutland Regional Medical Center, this committee took a position that creating a healthy community meant addressing each individual as a whole person with many needs including safe housing, mental health, food instability and more. This committee has also taken on the task of educating the community about the challenges facing recovery efforts.
As members of Project VISION and the newly formed NAACP chapter begin to connect, there is an opportunity for this community to tackle even the most challenging issues of racial injustice that faces so many communities across the United States. Under the guidance of Chief Kilcullen, a goal is to create a committee to address fair and impartial policing that includes a renewed focus on bias-free and de-escalation strategies within the department.
Across the country, anger and frustration have created an atmosphere of crisis and despair. Rutland continues to move forward as an example of a city that takes on its challenges with a faith that working together we can become one of the healthiest, safest and happiest communities in America.
Alis Headlam, a resident of Rutland, is a member of the Baha’i Faith and a retired public school teacher with a focus on literacy and racial justice. This commentary appeared at VTDigger.com on July 10.