Wednesday January 23, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Reactions to one of the state’s largest drug busts that took place last week in Bennington ranged from people advocating treatment to others wanting suspected offenders locked up. Many felt that while the more than 48 arrests were a good start, the major dealers are still at large and the problem still exists.

The Banner solicited opinions via its Facebook page on Monday as to whether area residents feel safer in the wake of the drug sweep, known as "Operation County Strike." Numerous comments were also made on the Banner’s Facebook posts of photos and video the day of the operation.

"I don’t feel safer," wrote Facebook user Ellen Howard. "It seems those that were arrested were mostly people selling to support their addiction. The real problem are those that sell drugs to make money and take advantage of those who suffer from addiction."

Police targeted 63 people they had identified as suspected drug dealers through the use of "cooperating individuals" who they paid to purchase drugs using funds from the Vermont Drug Task Force while wearing recording devices under police surveillance. Most suspects were arraigned the same day they were arrested and the majority were charged with at least one felony. All pleaded not guilty and some were held for lack of bail while others were released under tight curfews.

"I am a native of Bennington and have never felt unsafe before and do not feel unsafe now," posted Facebook user Mary Doyle Collins Habich. "Perhaps I have led a ‘charmed life’ or am just naive, but I feel like people are people. Drug addicts, drug dealers and the like don’t approach me, I don’t approach them."

Operation County Strike had been in the works for months, according to police. When the caseload threatened to become unwieldy, 100 officers acted at once and the streets of Bennington experienced the sight of officers in full tactical gear carrying assault rifles, while supported by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter. A Humvee owned by the Bennington Police Department was also put into use. There were no serious incidents during the arrests, save for subjects who refused to leave a Pleasant Street home until the helicopter hovered not far above the roof.

Not all appreciated the level of force shown by police. Under a picture of an officer dressed in tactical gear, Andrew Lindsay Cohen wrote "Jesus, do we really need people dressed like imperial storm troopers to deal with our riff-raff? Wouldn’t uniformed officers have worked just as well, without making it look like we’re under military occupation?"

Others were glad to see the operation conducted and wished to see more. "It was a great start!" wrote Facebook user Logen A. Tobin, of Buskirk, N.Y. "I will feel good about it if they keep going! I want the streets cleaner for when my child gets older."

The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, of the First Baptist Church of Bennington, said his church is located a block from Pleasant Street, where much of the police activity occurred. He said many of the people arrested were not so-called "others" but the friends, family, and acquaintances of many people in the community. "I think it’s shaken the community in several ways that have yet to come to the surface," Hugenot said.

"I’m interested in fostering a dialogue in this community that looks at this from a variety of angles," he said, adding that he intends to spend this week thinking of how to approach creating such a discussion.

Hugenot said everyone has his or her own reaction to the situation, and noted that he hopes a dialogue will form that is not reactionary and can make meaningful progress. He said the faith community of Bennington has a role to play, one that is less about judgment and more about redemption, and that it can facilitate discussions amongst people as to how to handle the issue.

Hugenot said he hopes most people will not seek to write off those struggling with addiction.

"This is not just a bunch of people out of town, it’s a bunch of people we know who got caught up in an addiction and need the community to support them," he said.

Hugenot said he had heard of many rural communities across America that struggle with drug problems and said perhaps some study into how they have handled it is warranted. He commended law enforcement for the job they did, saying those who need to be held accountable would be.

Sue Andrews, executive director of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council, said she got the impression that the show of force used by police is what made people feel unsafe.

She said her hope is that state prosecutors will seek treatment for offenders over extensive jail time and felony convictions. Andrews said she knows of a number of people who remain unemployed and struggle to make their way because felony convictions on their records cause employers to overlook them. She spoke of one man who, along with his wife, has applied for jobs at companies where the wife is told there are openings, while the husband, with a felony record, is told there is nothing available.