The Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department isn’t quite deputizing the residents of Johnson, but it might settle for the next best thing — Johnson folks helping keep their own streets safe.
The department hosted a community watch and safety meeting Tuesday night to share crime statistics pertaining to particularly problematic parts of the county’s central-most town. Those are, primarily, Railroad Street and its side streets of Lamoille View Drive, Clark Avenue and River Road, along with the area near the town skatepark on the western edge of the village.
Those areas have been hit hard with still-unsolved crimes — a half dozen automobile arsons in the Railroad Street area over the past 13 months and a series of vandalisms after dark in the skate park this summer — but also a seemingly never-ending series of “quality of life” issues, such as domestic disputes, noise complaints and drug activity, both dealing and illicit, and sometimes deadly, use.
According to Det. Kevin Lehoe, just two years ago, in 2019, the sheriff’s department responded to 1,777 incidents in Johnson, about 41 percent of the total 4,323 calls fielded by the department overall. Of those Johnson calls, about 8 percent were responses to the aforementioned areas.
Last year, while the percentage of calls to Johnson remained about the same — roughly 45 percent — the percentage of those calls relating to the Railroad Street or skatepark areas had nearly doubled, with more than 15 percent of Johnson incidents happening in those trouble areas.
This year, Lehoe said, looks to be similar to last.
“All said and done, a very significant number of calls that we are going to this area for are for quality of life,” Lehoe said.
Sgt. Chris Watson has been patrolling these streets for years and making plenty of arrests. He said there is one place on Railroad Street that police have had to respond to about a hundred times. Lt. Scott Kirkpatrick added the tenant in that spot has been arrested about a dozen times.
Johnson resident Peggy Williams said she was “stunned” that one place could have that many police visits, and she wondered what role landlords could play in stemming the tide of crime in certain places.
It’s never been easy to evict someone in Vermont and Sheriff Roger Marcoux said that’s only gotten harder in the pandemic, with a federal moratorium against evictions.
“We have talked with countless landlords that are thousands of dollars in the hole and their property is being ruined,” Marcoux said. “You wouldn’t believe the shape of some of these houses and properties.”
If this community watch meeting had been held just a year or two ago, St. John’s Road might have been on the list. In fact, selectboard member Nat Kinney asked why it wasn’t.
Marcoux said an arrest a year ago of a person on federal narcotics charges took a very big fish out of the pond, with local police helping the feds on the bust.
“Two years’ worth of that being our busiest place went away overnight,” Marcoux said.
The sheriff’s department budget is mostly supported through its full-time service contracts with the towns of Hyde Park, Johnson and Wolcott, although deputies also make occasional forays into Elmore and Eden, too.
Johnson’s share of the budget is a bit over 40 percent, according to Marcoux. When asked whether more calls might influence the budget, Marcoux said it’s difficult to draw a direct correlation between call volume and budgeting for resources, since some calls take minutes and some tie up several hours — and others, like the arsons, drag on for months or years.
Marcoux added that a neighborhood watch could act as a “force multiplier,” by helping tamp down the number of calls to Railroad Street and the skatepark.
“They help us where we cannot have somebody on duty 24 hours in Johnson, let alone these areas,” Marcoux said.
Drugs fuel crime
Drugs and alcohol seem to fuel many of the calls for service, although mental health issues — often underlying that substance use — play a big factor, too, Kirkpatrick said.
Kyle Nuse said she sees parents during the day engaging in such activity and then going to pick up their kids from school at the end of the day.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
She and others wondered how the community can work with local recovery organization Jenna’s Promise, along with other places like Healthy Lamoille Valley and North Central Vermont Recovery Center.
Greg Tatro, co-founder of Jenna’s Promise, said it’s difficult to get people to commit to recovery. He said Jenna’s Promise mostly deals with people who have already gone through the inpatient process “and are willing to get better.”
That doesn’t mean the town can’t try, Tatro said.
Kirkpatrick said it’s tough to watch a person dealing drugs walk, time after time.
“These persons of interest that you speak of? We have arrested them, some of them three, four, five, six times for possession of narcotics. We have put them through the court system, and they don’t get incarcerated,” Kirkpatrick said. “So, we’re equally as frustrated in this building as you are because we see targets who we know are poisoning people. We see them, we catch them, we arrest them, we write good paper on them, and they don’t go to jail.”
Some folks were eager to start a watch network soon. Rooney noted she purchased a bunch of neighborhood watch signs — readily available in stores and online — and she and her neighbors put them up, and they had an immediate effect.
“You immediately feel like you’re being watched,” she said.
Marcoux said cameras at places like the skatepark can be deterrents as well as investigative aids, but he acknowledged many people are opposed to cameras in public places.
In laying out basic tenets of a neighborhood watch, Lehoe said simple lighting is one of the best crime deterrents, whether the lights are motion-activated or on a timer, or there are just more of them along a side street. The skatepark doesn’t have lighting because it’s not open at night, town administrator Brian Story said, adding, however, it may be time to rethink security there, considering the frequent after-hours calls.
Another deterrent: people.
Lehoe said the first step in a good neighborhood watch is getting to know your neighbors. Exchange phone numbers; go on frequent walks in teams, changing up the times and routes; educate kids about the watch, because juveniles can be responsible for a lot of crime.
Other basics include simple home security measures, such as being careful what you leave on the porch or in the yard; closing the garage door; having someone collect the mail while you’re away; and not posting on social media about that trip you’re about to go on next week.