The town of Springfield has been considering an anti-loitering ordinance to help keep drugs and criminal activity off the streets. Those efforts have led to a broader discussion of the town’s problems.
Sitting in the Jenny Wren Café on Springfield’s main downtown street, Kimberly Bombria says she’s seen a lot of gang activity and drug sales. She traces much of the problem to tenants of the building that also houses the cafe.
"On Main Street alone right here at this building," Bombria says, "You’d see 10 or 12 of them and you’d see them going out and handing off drugs right to the cars."
On the table in front of her are half a dozen handwritten petitions calling for an ordinance that she says would get troublemakers off the street. Bombria says she’s had no trouble getting signatures. She says she’s talked to parents who no longer let their kids go to the library or walk around town.
"Or even to the children's park," she adds, "because they’re finding needles on the ground."
Town officials have discussed the petition at several meetings. Springfield select board member Stephanie Thompson is on the board’s ordinance committee. She says the committee had already been considering an anti-loitering ordinance.
"And the concern was, a lot of this stuff you can’t really legally do," Thomspon says. "You don’t want to violate anybody’s First Amendment rights or any other rights."
Doug Johnston, the town’s police chief, sees that as a problem too.
"What about people standing outside talking after a select board meeting?" he wants to know. "They would be in violation. I mean, you just can’t do it for a certain group. You’ve got to enforce it for everybody."
Johnston favors a multi-pronged approach to the town’s problems. He says a well-enforced zoning ordinance can pressure property owners to keep their properties up. It can help the town acquire and demolish derelict buildings if the owners refuse to cooperate.
Stephanie Thompson says the Springfield Select Board has been trying to do that. But the process is expensive and slow.
Thompson thinks stepped-up foot patrols by police in recent months have had a positive affect. Chief Johnston agrees. But he blames heroin, and the demand for it, for the spike in crime over the past few years. Johnston says dealers can get a lot more money for a bag of heroin in Springfield than they can in urban areas. He says the activity is gang related and very organized. If you arrest one dealer, he says, another will quickly take his place.
"So you’ve got to break up that infrastructure," he says.
The town has been working with Vermont’s multi-agency drug task force. Johnston says the collaborative efforts have sent nine people to jail in the past year, including three from a drug-related shooting this June. A drug sweep in 2013 led to 33 arrests, he adds.
But he says those investigations take time.
"It’s not like stopping somebody for drunk driving where you get instant results," he says. "It takes a while to get the result, but when you get the results, they’re long-lasting."
But some people think the town has been too patient. In a recent letter to the community, retired judge Paul Hudson, a longtime Springfield resident, called on the town to confront the surge in crime.
Hudson has invited Rutland Police Chief James Baker to an open meeting on Monday evening to talk about Rutland’s multi-layered approach to similar problems.
The meeting will be held on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. at Springfield High School.