Burlington, 50 miles from Canada, is often their last stop. There, the drug couriers find hosts who help distribute drugs: pills, bulk heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl.
On a recent day, Lt. Michael Warren steered a police car along the tree-lined streets of the city’s Old North End, tracing a path of wreckage.
Here, on Ward Street, two brothers overdosed last June in chairs on their front porch. There, on Hyde Street, a genetics major at the University of Vermont was discovered dead. A sign for a corner store, at North and Rose Streets, marks the spot of a drive-by shooting over drugs two summers ago. A block away, at North and LaFountain Streets, an open-air drug bazaar once reigned.
“It’s all around,” Lieutenant Warren said as a man who he said had overdosed several times bicycled by.
But the area has changed since the police started regular foot patrols, put 140-watt LED bulbs in the streetlights and encouraged merchants to do the same. Now drugs are not as visible, said Doug Olsaver, who has worked for 20 years as a manager at the Shopping Bag, a store at LaFountain and North Streets.
“An officer told me that his opinion of drug dealers were that they were like cockroaches,” Mr. Olsaver said. “They hate light.”
Earlier that day, Chief del Pozo took a seat with Jackie Corbally — whose title with the Burlington Police Department is opiate policy coordinator, but he calls her the drug czar — at a U-shaped set of tables at the Police Headquarters in the neighboring town of Winooski. The meeting, called SubStat, began convening regularly four months ago with the goal of tracking dozens of vulnerable users who have either been arrested or overdosed. It is based on New York’s computerized crime fighting system, CompStat, but broader, with those in corrections and parole, the prosecutor’s office and public health in on the talks with local police leaders.
“It’s all about shifting from addiction as a crime to addiction as a disease,” said Jane Helmstetter of the state’s human services agency, who was at the meeting.
One Burlington man, with a longtime addiction and a record of arrests, was struggling to believe the police could help him, he said, even after an officer revived him in April, after his second of three overdoses in 10 days. The officer followed him to a hospital emergency room and told him, “If you need help, we’ll drive you to treatment right now.”
Soon, the man met Ms. Corbally, and found himself face to face with Chief del Pozo, an unlikely ally. They helped get him into rehabilitation. The encounter was surprising, said the man and his mother, who have tried to keep their ordeal private and spoke on the condition that their names not be published.
“He wasn’t just treated as a drug addict and someone that wasn’t worthy of help,” his mother said. “Here you have a police chief sitting in the same room with a drug addict that knowingly uses illegal substances and he’s not going to handcuff him? It was unusual.”