At the White House this week, Vice President Joe Biden met with law enforcement leaders from across the United States. They discussed how to build trust between local citizens and law enforcement. Meanwhile, some interesting trust-building has been going on in a handful of Vermont communities.
Audio for this piece will be posted.
In St. Albans this week, police officers were grilling up and giving away hundreds of hot dogs. Kids in Rutland were taking selfies with local patrol officers. In Fair Haven, Police Chief William Humphries was perched on the break-away seat of a dunk tank, daring residents to make him take the plunge.
It was all part of National Night Out on Tuesday.
“It’s just an opportunity for the public to interact with us," explains Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries. "I mean, they don’t every day get to dunk me in a dunking booth. Some days they deal with me it’s not good. It just brings the community together.”
Humphries says his department doesn’t have a community relations problem, and he plans to keep it that way.
“With everything going on in the world right now and the anti-police sentiment, I think that it does help us in our community," he says of the annual Night Out. "Our community supports us very well anyway. We don’t really have those issues. But I want to keep that reinforced.”
National Night Out intends to promote safety in communities across the country. But in St. Albans, Police Lt. Ron Hoague says it’s more about strengthening community bonds.
“It’s about making contact and making community partnerships," says Lt. Hoague. "You know, we can’t do this alone as law enforcement. We can’t solve everything. We don’t try to. So if we can partner with the community and get people to help us and we become partners in solving these issues, we’ll get farther.”
Hoague says this type of community-oriented policing is happening in St. Albans despite the animosity involving law enforcement throughout the country, not because of it.
“With all of the different events that have taken place around the country, yes our police officers are absolutely more cautious than they have been in the near past," he says. "But we’re not going to let that affect our relationship with the community. We’ve got a good relationship, we’re transparent with them. And we’ve been doing this – this is our ninth year and we’re not going to stop doing it because of what’s been going on around the country.”
Over the years, National Night Out has grown in St. Albans from a get-to-know-your-police event to a full-scale community celebration. All sorts of organizations took part this year, handing out balloons, popsicles, T-shirts and goodie bags.
A cue of young children and parents stood under a tent marked Rise VT. It’s a community collaborative based out of the Northwestern Medical Center. The kids were waiting to mix up smoothies on a bicycle-powered blender.
A man who goes by the name Moretti was helping serve up the fruits of their labor.
“We want to celebrate our community and how safe it is and wonderful it is," he says. "We want to celebrate everybody here, so we were just here to spin up some fun, as it were.”
But policing isn’t all fun and games, even in Vermont. Fair Haven’s Chief Humphries says his department is busier than ever. Some of that is because community relations efforts are working, and residents are calling the police more. But he also says there’s more drug-related crime in the area.
“It’s definitely changed from when I started here," he says. "I wish we could go back to ’98 when I started. We didn’t have the problems that we have. Our call volume has gone from 800 cases to 2,000 a year ... We’re experiencing big city problems here that we’ve never experienced before. There is a heroin problem in the area, opiates throughout the county.”
And addiction, officers across Vermont will tell you, is a problem best addressed by united communities working together.