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Morristown and Other Small Towns Are Convening to Address Rising Crime in Rural Vermont


Published February 14, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 14, 2024 at 11:11 a.m.

Chuck's Bikes - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Chuck's Bikes

The mood was tense at a public gathering in the Peoples Academy auditorium in Morristown. An older man clutched the microphone while addressing nearly 100 fellow community members.

"I look back to when I grew up. There was rule of law. There was respect for each other," he said. "Where did it go?"

He paused for effect, turning to a panel of safety officers, community health care workers and state lawmakers seated onstage. "So maybe someone could enlighten me and the community: When did this begin?"

Applause erupted as he sat down. A few attendees stood up in agreement, nodding fervently.

"Does anyone want to take a crack at that?" Todd Baxter, detective lieutenant for the Morristown Police Department and the emcee for the evening, asked with a chuckle.

The forum last month followed a heated community discussion in September that was prompted by a rash of retail thefts affecting downtown businesses. At the September meeting, organized by the Morristown Police Department, residents of the working-class community voiced frustration with the state's criminal justice system, sometimes angrily. This latest forum was meant to keep the conversation going and loop state officials into the discussion.

Morristown, population 5,434, is not the only town with crime on its mind. Across Vermont, communities such as Middlebury and Hardwick have held similar meetings to address what some residents describe as a sense that public safety is eroding.

"We need our elected legislators to change things," said Michelle Menard, manager at Menard's Family True Value in Morristown, which was burglarized three times in 2023. "There's tangible frustration."

Recent foul play in rural Vermont has ranged from the vandalization of a beloved farmstand in Isle la Motte to execution-style murders in Eden and Troy. The resulting anxiety has caught the attention of state legislators and Gov. Phil Scott.

"With crime rising in too many places, I fear many see the Vermont they know slipping away," Scott said during his annual State of the State address in January. Scott noted that in the previous 10 years, violent crime logged by state police has gone up 56 percent.

In Vermont's rural communities, the discussion over petty crime has frequently turned into one over whom to blame, with local police quick to steer the spotlight toward the court system, mental health care and the provisions of criminal law written in the state's capital in Montpelier.

Complicating the conversations is the reality that Vermont has little in the way of detailed crime statistics at the local level. Although some police departments keep records on reported crimes and make them public, others don't, making it difficult to get a reliable statewide read on Main Street crime trends.

Americans tend to believe crime is up, even when data show the opposite. In 20 of 24 surveys conducted by Gallup since 1993, at least 60 percent of U.S. adults have said there is more crime nationally than the year before, despite a generally downward trend in violent and property crimes during most of that period.

In Morristown, however, crime has increased significantly. Reports of misdemeanor retail theft, for instance, nearly tripled from 12 in 2014 to 34 last year. Arrests increased in that period, from 239 to 303. Police are responding to more overall incidents, too — 4,987 last year, up about 8.4 percent over the same period.

Hank Glowiak of Chuck's Bikes - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Hank Glowiak of Chuck's Bikes

The effect on downtown businesses has been acute, shop owners say. Hank Glowiak, owner of Chuck's Bikes in downtown Morristown, had two bikes, with a combined value of almost $8,000, stolen from the front porch of his shop last year when he wasn't looking. At the January meeting, Glowiak encouraged his neighbors to be proactive. "I walk out of the shop, and I see things, and I try to give the police clues to what I see," he said.

When the individual accused of stealing the bikes failed to show up at a court hearing, Glowiak "went and found him in seven minutes flat and called the police department, and he was brought straight there," he told the crowd, eliciting laughter and applause.

Baxter, the Morristown detective lieutenant, used Glowiak's appeal as an opportunity to invoke repeat offenders, who became a dominant topic of the January gathering. According to Jason Luneau, police chief for Morristown, repeat offenders accounted for a third of the arrests made in Morristown last year. Police officials blame a criminal justice system that too readily frees them.

"The revolving door takes up time and resources across Vermont law enforcement, judiciary and mental health systems," Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux said at the Morristown session. Marcoux argued in favor of stricter punishments and more timely court hearings.

Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, told Seven Days that the organization is working on a survey of town representatives regarding public safety and municipal policing, which is scheduled for release next month. He said selectboard members around the state perceive an uptick in crime.

But Brady cautions against overstating the case. He describes some of the town discussions as "fraught with anecdotal horror stories that make it feel like we're in Gotham."

In Hardwick, for example, neighbors organized a community-wide discussion in September after a series of carjackings spooked residents. But during the meeting, police officials revealed that crime rates were actually down in Hardwick, according to town manager David Upson.

In places where hard numbers show that crime is on the rise, pinpointing underlying causes can be difficult. A factor frequently cited in local discussions is the nationwide drug crisis, which has left many people homeless and desperate for cash.

"Our mental health system is not able to meet the needs of our communities," Brady said.

Morristown Police Chief Jason Luneau - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Morristown Police Chief Jason Luneau

Last June, Lamoille County's alcohol- and substance-abuse awareness program closed its doors. Baxter said the Morristown Police Department is trying to get more funding for such programs.

"We're thinking holistically," Baxter told Seven Days. "There isn't one set of answers."

The police officials in Morristown told the residents assembled to look to Montpelier, and judicial reform, for lasting answers.

Some forum attendees followed their lead, directing sometimes sharp comments at the state representatives, who included Rep. Saudia LaMont (D-Morristown), Rep. Avram Patt (D-Worcester) and Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille).

"No one else can do this for us," one attendee said. "They" — he gestured toward the lawmakers — "have to do it."

Legislators across the state seem to be feeling the heat. "It's all become more salient this session," Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told Seven Days. "Representatives are hearing from their constituents that they are concerned about this."

Four bills aimed at dealing with repeat offenders, backlogged courts and other issues are making their way through the House committee, including one that would increase the penalty for retail theft if a person commits more than one violation within a 14-day period and the total value of the stolen goods exceeds $900.

Two other bills seek to tackle court backlogs by simplifying the judicial nominating process and offering alternative hearings for offenders. Another measure would toughen punishments for stealing cars.

Separate bills on the Senate side would address offenders who violate their conditions of release and increase penalties for those held responsible for overdose deaths. LaLonde said the proposed reforms generally enjoy support across party lines.

Morristown's forum, which veered into matters as philosophical as the origins of crime and human possibility for transformation, ended with plenty of questions unanswered. But the discussion had one effect. Although many residents still harbored frustration over crime as they filed out, there seemed to be a new resolve over where they might direct it.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Crime in Mind | Morristown and other small towns are convening to address rising crime in rural Vermont"

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