Undercover cop: Drug problem strong in Southern Vermont
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | January 18,2013
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Police execute a drug roundup Wednesday in Bennington, targeting dozens of suspects.
BENNINGTON — The drug problem in southern Vermont has grown within the past 15 years with the supply and access increasing to dangerous levels, according to an undercover officer who was a key part of the investigation that led to 49 arrests Wednesday.
The name of the officer, a supervisor with the Vermont State Police’s narcotics unit, which works with the Vermont Drug Task Force, is being withheld to preserve the safety of the officer and his family as well as the integrity of the investigation.
On Wednesday, a law enforcement team of more than 100 police officers swept the Bennington County area in an attempt to arrest 63 people who had been identified through the investigation. By Wednesday evening, 47 were arrested.
Two others were arrested in New York later Wednesday, two were already incarcerated and four turned themselves in to be arraigned Thursday, leaving eight who are still being sought.
In an interview Thursday, the officer, a veteran of many undercover investigations going back more than a decade, said that during his earliest investigations, crack was the “drug of choice,” heroin was hard to find and prescription pills were primarily abused by older people who managed to get a prescription.
Now, those who sell drugs have access to crack, heroin, cocaine and pills.
“Pills are as big of a problem, and more of a social problem, in a lot of ways as heroin because it’s not as evident that you’re using them and they’re just as destructive,” he said.
The officer said he was especially concerned about the access teenagers had to addictive pills. He cautioned pills and other drugs were more readily available than most parents might know.
“If your kid’s going to school and has money in his or her pocket, then drugs are available,” he said. “I don’t know how early that starts but if you have a 12-year-old, I would worry about how much money he has in his pocket.”
The amount of drugs in the Southern Vermont area has increased to the point that police couldn’t even use money as a way to buy them up and keep them off the streets.
“We weren’t able to deplete the supply and we tried,” he said.
While the drug sweep Wednesday did not involve direct crimes of violence, the officer said there was an “underlying threat” of violence. The drug trade in southern Vermont is primarily run by urban street gangs in New York, some of them from Troy and Albany but ultimately tied to New York City.
Those who distribute drugs cultivate a violent image with talk of weapons, including automatic and semi-automatic weapons, which has a larger impact on the area than some might realize.
Many drug users also sell drugs, but because of their addictions they use the drugs rather than sell them and have no money to pay for them. The officer said this explains the large number of burglaries in local communities as users, fearful of their lives, will take extreme measures to get the money to pay for their drugs.
Despite the danger that can be part of the life, the officer said undercover work is more about teamwork than taking risks.
“You have to be a team-oriented person,” he said. “We always work together. You’re never alone. It’s nothing like the movies, it’s not nearly as exciting. It’s a lot of work. It’s a ton of paperwork.”
A law enforcement officer can’t look or act like a cop and has to be able to accept being treated in a way that reflects the different look associated with the undercover identity, according to the officer, but one of the primary requirements is making sure that the person’s significant other is supportive.
“If they’re not, you’ll be miserable and you’ll either get a divorce or you’ll leave the unit and not the way that you want to,” he said.
The officer was casual about what it meant to work the odd and long hours that can be part of being undercover, asking if it was really so different than any other demanding job.
Vermont is a small community, so undercover officers don’t conduct operations in close proximity of their homes. But during the recent operation, the officer said he had a chance to interact with local police and said some of them were among the best police officers he has met.
The opportunity to work among the best of his profession was one of the appeals of the job, he said.
“It gives you such a unique experience and insight onto how this (criminal) subculture exists,” he said. “… So later on if you’re investigating a child pornography case and it somehow involves these circles, you know how you can work this at an angle that a regular beat cop would never know because you know how (the subcultures) work.”
He added, “It provides an unmatchable amount of experience and access to ways of life that your average cop would never know. Because your average cop didn’t grow up like that.”