Regional Report: Springfield Looks For Options To Fight Drug Crimes

May 1, 2015

Selectman George McNaughton wants to give the Springfield Police Department “another tool on their tool belt” to fight drug crime in town.

McNaughton and Selectwoman Stephanie Thompson, members of the town’s ordinance subcommittee, met Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possibility of what McNaughton has dubbed a “drug den ordinance.” Violations would be civil, not criminal.

McNaughton said he also wanted to beef up the town’s ordinances dealing with dilapidated buildings.

Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda, who by town charter is also a member of the ordinance subcommittee, said a good approach would be to include provisions for “uninhabitable” buildings, not just unsafe buildings.

The town launched a crackdown on dilapidated buildings in 2013 as part of the effort to make the town less attractive to crime — specifically, drug dealers. Of the original dozen houses, only three cases remain unresolved, Town Manager Tom Yennerell reported earlier this week.

“Can we do more?” McNaughton said. “I’m looking for a civil remedy that doesn’t get us in the criminal justice system.”

The goal is to make people who may be dealing drugs “uncomfortable” and get them to move out of town, he said.

Yennerell questioned the wisdom of creating a new ordinance when the town is having trouble enforcing laws that are already on the books.

Zoning should not be used to enforce criminal laws, he said.

But Yennerell said he was in favor of giving the police more tools in their fight.

Police Chief Douglas Johnston told the subcommittee his department’s practice of sending out letters to the owners or landlords of suspected “drug dens” was a powerful tool.

The letters can be sent out as a warning about suspected drug trafficking, he said, without any criminal charges pending. Building a criminal case against drug dealers is difficult and time-consuming, he said.

Often neighbors complain about constant, short-term traffic coming to a home in the neighborhood, Johnston said.

The police department can send a letter warning the landowner of the problem.

But Ankuda noted that people can counter with any number of far-fetched explanations: “I have a lot of friends ... we play cribbage short hands ...”

He said a state law regarding “common nuisance” would answer a lot of Springfield’s concerns; its authority rests with the state Department of Health.

Yennerell said relying on zoning regulations — specifically an increase in traffic to specific homes — to enforce criminal laws was a mistake.

He cited buildings on Wall Street and Valley Street, boarded up or even condemned, in which people have been living illegally, or squatting.

After the meeting, Thompson said the town is reviewing what “teeth” it has in local ordinances that can aid the effort to improve the town.

“We’ve learned that there are some limitations with the unsafe building ordinance,” she said, noting that adding “uninhabitable” to “unsafe” might be a good route to take.

The focus, she said, is public safety.

“That letter can be a good tool,” Thompson said, referring to the police letter.

Ankuda will work on a draft definition of an “uninhabitable building” before the town involves Fire Chief Russell Thompson, who, as the town’s health officer, has been heavily involved in the dilapidated building crackdown.

Susan Smallheer is a reporter for the Rutland Herald, where this story first appeared. It is republished here through a partnership with the paper.