WILLISTON — A federal grant of $1.4 million will allow the Vermont State Police to transfer five troopers from regular duty to the Vermont Drug Task Force.
According to a press release from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office, the grant will also pay for a data analyst. The six new positions will help the task force conduct heroin trafficking investigations in Vermont.
"Every community could use more resources in this battle, but the Vermont Drug Task Force is best equipped to identify and arrest those who are behind heroin trafficking," said Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, during a press conference at the State Police barracks in Williston. "They have a proven and successful track record, which is why I have been proud to support their efforts in Washington."
Major Glenn Hall, the commander of the State Police's Criminal Division, said the five new investigators have a number of responsibilities, including undercover work and traditional investigation work. He declined to identify the new additions to the task force due to the sensitive nature of their duties. "They will be plain-clothes, not uniformed troopers, focusing specifically on heroin."
The five trooper positions being vacated will be filled by officers already on duty and new graduates from the Vermont Police Academy, said Hall.
The Vermont Drug Task Force is an interagency partnership, operated through the Vermont State Police. Its undercover drug investigators are made up of state troopers, local, county and federal law enforcement officers whose primary mission is to investigate individuals trafficking illegal drugs.
"We have four units throughout the state, geographically located in each quadrant," said Hall.
Those units have police officers drawn from the State Police and local police departments. The task force also works with the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Homeland Security, said Hall. "It's a collaborative effort focused on heroin trafficking."
The analyst that will be added to the task force will work out of the State Police's intelligence center and will help investigators utilize data to focus their efforts, said Hall.
The increase in the number of investigators assigned to the task force is an indication of how serious the opioid epidemic is in Vermont and the nation, said Hall. "Over the past several years, we have seen an increase in the number of heroin investigations we have had to conduct and we have seen an increase in the quantity of heroin coming into the state."
While addressing the heroin problem in Vermont requires a multi-faceted approach — such as treatment, interdiction and education — the task force is focused on tracking down and taking heroin dealers out of circulation, said Hall.
"Five positions doesn't seem like a lot, but it's a significant resource for us," said Hall. "Our best asset is our drug investigators. This is time-intensive work. It's about having the staffing to handle the influx."
While the U.S. Attorney's Office does not play a role in applying for the grants, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont Eric Miller said, "We do however strongly support the State Police and the Vermont Drug Task Force when they apply for additional resources to further our joint mission. Even with our federal resources, we still rely heavily on the Vermont Drug Task Force to help investigate and prosecute major federal drug cases."
The U.S. Attorney's Office is able to bring resources to the state level the task force may not have, including tracking down activity outside of Vermont, said Hall.
"Many of our investigations lead us out of state," he said.
The United States Attorney's Office has four prosecutors assigned to each of the quadrants, said Miller, and out of the 15 criminal prosecutors in his office, five of them and their support staff are assigned to opiate cases.
"Every two weeks these prosecutors get on a conference call with federal, state and local officials in each of the four quadrants and make joint decisions about which cases to prioritize for federal investigation and which for local investigations," said Miller. "Together we decide the most appropriate venue."
Miller agreed with Hall that combating the opiate scourge in Vermont requires a multi-faceted approach.
"There is no question we cannot prosecute our way out of this," said Miller. "Vermont has long since come to the conclusion that we need education, treatment and law enforcement. If we forego any of those portions of the response, we are not going to make progress. These additions to the Vermont Drug Task Force will help us to beef up one aspect of the statewide response, but they will never be a complete answer to the problem."
"We know that treatment and prevention are also very important in addressing heroin addiction, and that is why I worked to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act just last month," Leahy said. "But to be truly effective, we have to get at the heart of the heroin supply. We need a coordinated effort that reaches into every corner of our state. We need to target those who make a profit from other people's misery."
Hall conveyed his thanks to Senator Leahy.
"He has been somebody who has been a strong supporter of the task force for many years and has been key in getting funding to support our operations. That funding is essential to the work we have been able to do."
The Department of Justice's Anti-Heroin Task Force program is administered through DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services and was created by Leahy as a result of Senate Judiciary Committee field hearings he held to examine heroin and opioid abuse in Vermont. The program targets areas with high rates of primary treatment admissions for heroin and other opioids. Vermont was one of only six states to receive the grants, which totaled $5.8 million.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.