Putting Rutland crime into context

Rutland City Police investigate a shooting on Cleveland Avenue shortly before 4 p.m. Friday. (Vyto Starinskas/Rutland Herald photo)

[UPDATED (5/1/12): The shooting on Friday, 4/27/12, was accidental and not a drive-by]

(Published in the May 2, 2012, edition of the Rutland Herald) Before we respond to last week’s shooting near Cleveland Avenue with hopeless despair over Rutland’s further decline into darkness, let’s count to five and put things into perspective.

Early reports labeled the incident as a drive-by shooting. Further investigation revealed that it was, in fact, accidental. While this development changes how the shooting is classified, the public’s initial response was no less real.

As word of the shooting went viral on social media Friday afternoon, the tone was dire. Across the Rutland, people clucked their tongues and shook their heads lamenting the loss of town they once knew.

But Rutland is still a safe community. Yes, Friday’s shooting rightly frightened us. Yes, we have seen this type of violence — and worse — before. But none of these incidents alone or taken together is cause to abandon hope.

So why have we seemingly thrown in the towel on crime?

True, things are ugly — getting uglier, perhaps, depending on your neighborhood — but they are far from beyond repair.

Let’s put this in context. As the largest city in southern Vermont, Rutland is going to have a higher instance of crime than neighboring communities. I’m not being fatalistic here; that’s just the reality of the situation. Yes, we can do better, but at the end of the day, Rutland is not Mayberry.

According to numbers issued by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, in 2010, Chittenden County had the highest the number of criminal offenses committed. Rutland County was second. Including population, Chittenden County is still first; Windham County is second; Rutland County is third. When you examine drug offenses in 2010, Burlington is on top again with 81 per 1,000 residents. Rutland, meanwhile, comes in at 57 per 1,000 residents. (Source)

To say that the City of Rutland has lost control of the situation is reactionary hyperbole at its worst. The fact that when violent acts do occur here they resonate so strongly throughout the community is evidence that they are anomalies, not the status quo.

That being said, we are at a point where losing our focus may well have dire consequences. Almost all recent incidents of violent crime in Rutland have occurred between parties where a relationship was previously established. To find an incident of violent crime involving someone unknown to the perpetrator, you have to go back to 2000 when Teresca King was abducted in Rutland and later murdered.

However, Friday’s shooting — as it was initially reported — was especially troubling: It was a drive-by shooting, occurring in the middle of the day, several blocks from a school. Even if this was later proven not to be what actually happened, people’s reactions were real and justified. We are right to be rattled by this. What if a stray bullet had hit a pedestrian or gone through a window of a passing car or someone’s home? What if a child had been struck on his or her way home from school?

These concerns are legitimate. And while that’s not what happened, people should be assured that the city and the police department be taking the appropriate steps to see that it doesn’t.

So what’s to be done?

At times like this, people often react with anger, rightly demanding justice, but doing so without nuance, tact or rationality. Yes, this is easy and gratifying, but it is also ineffective and potentially dangerous. This type of reaction creates fear and distrust in communities, leading to profiling and vigilantism, which as we have seen in Sanford, Fla., can have tragic consequences.

Cooler heads must prevail. Step back, count to five and find a more productive approach.

The Rutland Police Department, for one, is where prevention begins. Historically, the RPD has taken its lumps — some justified — but with an interim chief who understands the big picture of Rutland’s drug and subsequent crime problems, there is hope that they will right their ship.

Forging stronger connections with the neighborhoods where drug and crime issues most frequently occur is essential. In the past, the RPD has been criticized for falling short here. Part of that has been due to staffing issues. Another part, I would argue, has been leadership. Having a community presence in these neighborhoods beyond responding to 911 calls is a step in the right direction toward being proactive in preventing crime.

Similarly, Rutland United Neighborhoods is a citizen organization that also works to build better relationships within these at-risk neighborhoods. RUN hosts regular meetings throughout the city (view the calendar at here), which provide residents with a forum to voice their concerns, meet their neighbors and communicate with city officials and police.

Chief Baker has correctly framed Rutland’s drug problem as a matter of demand: People would not be selling drugs here if people weren’t buying them. Until our community works to address addiction, we will not succeed is getting drugs and drug dealers off our streets. This is easier said than done. Fighting addiction means providing the necessary services to those in need.

This proposition may be a nonstarter for those who lack empathy and cynically lump all people suffering from addiction into the clichéd category of non-contributing bottom-feeders. As long as we keep pushing these people the margins of society, we will continue to see drug sales, abuse and violence creep into not just Rutland but every community.

City government, too, has a responsibility to improve these neighborhoods, which have been long neglected physically. This includes mitigating the city’s blighted properties, paving these streets and repairing the broken sidewalks. These simple, albeit costly, repairs to basic infrastructure will go a long way to rebuilding pride for these residents.

The city can also work to address absent and neglectful landlords who allow — either knowingly or ignorantly — criminal behavior to occur under their roofs, and let their properties sink into disrepair with no concern for neighboring homes.

Another crucial component in winning Rutland back is you. What are you doing to turn the tide? Have you attended your ward’s RUN meeting? If you live in an at-risk neighborhood, what have you done to build community with your neighbors? It starts here. Open the door. Step outside. And with pride, courage and good will, peacefully take your neighborhood back.

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