National media puts Rutland’s drug problem center stage
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | March 17,2014
Victoria DeLong of Rutland was photographed pointing to a house where drug dealing occurs for a recent news article in The New York Times. The article delves into the heroin problem in Rutland.
National media attention on Rutland’s decade-old drug war has been getting split reviews.
In the weeks since Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his state of the state address to the issue of an opiate and heroin epidemic in Vermont, a story about the drug trade in Rutland appeared in The New York Times at the end of February and another was broadcast last week on Al Jazeera America.
And that’s just the start.
Rutland City Police Chief James Baker said that in recent weeks he has been contacted by NBC, 20/20, Rolling Stone and the Fusion network.
“It’s insane what’s going on,” Baker said. “Just the other day I got a call from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Everyone suddenly wants to talk about us.”
Drugs, and heroin in particular, have been an issue in Rutland since at least late 2000 and have been a problem statewide for nearly that long.
But to the rest of the country, the problem in Rutland and Vermont as a whole is something new.
“From what I’m being told the state of the state that Shumlin delivered was just so unusual,” Baker said. “That and the death of (Philip Seymour) Hoffman raised the conscious of the national media about heroin. From there they just Googled heroin and Vermont and found Rutland.”
The chief said he’s worked with some of the news outlets but not with those who want to make Rutland out to be the “heroin capital of Vermont.”
It’s a touchy subject for Baker and other city officials like Mayor Christopher Louras who for the last two years have been implementing a community and data-driven approach to fighting drugs and crime in the city.
It’s that strategy that city officials would like the coverage to be about.
“I think the attention is a good thing provided that the outside media focuses on what’s being done different here,” Louras said. “Rutland’s not the poster child for drugs in Vermont. We’re no different than any one else in the region.”
That’s true — to a point.
Statistics kept by the Vermont Criminal Information Center show that Rutland Police handled 21 incidents involving narcotics last year. That number is comparable to the 23 cases recorded by Bennington Police, the 22 handled by Colchester Police and the 22 narcotics cases reported by Newport Police. The narcotics caseload in Rutland in 2012 was less than half of the 45 cases investigated by Burlington police, according to VCIC.
But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. Left out of those equations are the number of state drug task force cases and federal drug investigations which, according to Vermont U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin, are significantly greater in Rutland than most of the rest of the state.
“Many towns and small cities in Vermont are dealing with drug problems other than Rutland. They’re making a strong effort to reduce the supply in Rutland but certainly Rutland and Burlington are the centers for that activity,” Coffin said.
New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye, whose article on Rutland was published Feb. 27, said in an email correspondence that she chose to write about the city because it shows both the problem in Vermont as well as a potential solution.
“I picked Rutland because it not only had acknowledged its heroin problem but was actually doing something about it,” Seelye wrote.
In a follow-up article about a similar opiate problem in Bennington, Seelye quoted Shumlin as saying that the southern Vermont town was four years behind where Rutland is now in terms of finding a strategy to deal with the problem.
Baker and Louras like that kind of media coverage and they cooperated with Seelye when she asked for interviews. The police chief said he has also agreed to work with 20/20 on a piece that is still in development.
But the pair said they have turned down more media requests than they’ve accepted because of what they deem are the negative angles of some media outlets.
“I’m sick and tired of people coming here talking about Rutland being the drug capital of the world,” Baker said. “All some of these guys want to talk about is how bad it is here.”
The Fusion network, a cable and satellite television outlet owned by Univision Communications and the Walt Disney Company, was one of the outlets that Baker said he turned down because of their intent to focus on the problem.
But Dan Lieberman, a correspondent and producer for Fusion who was in Rutland last week, said he picked Rutland because there was no getting around the numbers or the word of mouth about the city.
“There’s been an 800 percent surge in drug incidents here since 2000 and law enforcement in the state call this the nexus. It’s where they see the most activity,” Lieberman said.
Whether or not Rutland really has the worst drug problem in the state doesn’t really make a difference as far as Tom Donahue is concerned.
The executive vice president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce said that perception is reality as far as businesses and tourists looking at coming to Rutland are concerned.
“If someone on the other side of the country sees this kind of media coverage they’re not going to see the other side which is the amazing story of this community. That’s not what’s going to make the national news,” Donahue said.
While some city officials, including Louras, said that the coverage thus far of Rutland had received favorable reviews outside of the state, Donahue said a comment on the Chamber’s Facebook account spelled out his worst fears.
“It said, and I think this is almost word for word, ‘Sounds like Rutland is a place to avoid,’” Donahue said.
James Stewart, executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., shares some of Donahue’s fears.
As a recruiter for new industry in the region, Stewart said it’s unfortunate that the city has been singled out for a problem affecting the rest of Vermont and New England.
But Stewart said Rutland officials have long been outspoken about the drug problem and strategies to address it.
“I guess I hope that people see that, yes, there’s an issue here and we’re dealing with it,” he said.