What's Behind the Robberies in Hartford and Norwich?
Hartford's police chief looks at the big picture.
Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten has no doubt that the two robberies in Wilder this week were drug-related. His assertion was reinforced by the arrest of Justin Hatch on Friday where, according dailyUVblogger Eric Francis, "he was found 'crashing' in a room at the Shady Lawn with individuals police have referred to as 'known drug dealers.'"
Kasten has seen similar robberies many times while working in Maryland before he moved to the Upper Valley. He describes what happened as "crimes of opportunity" committed by desperate drug addicts.
"I never saw anyone rob who was trying to put food on the table," he says. And it all circles back to Vermont's opioid crisis.
Until now this kind of armed robbery has been absent from the core towns of the Upper Valley, though robberies have occurred all around us —most recently in Bethel and Springfield. Statewide statistics show that the number of robberies jumped 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, so it was only a matter of time before the trend would hit closer to home.
Kasten says that Hartford typically has had two, maybe three, robberies a year in the recent past. There have been two robberies in Hartford already in 2017, plus the robbery of Dan and Whit's in adjacent Norwich. Kasten won't speculate if this is the beginning of a trend, though he admits things could get worse before they get better. Instead Kasten offers perspectives on the problem based on his past experiences.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the increase in robberies is an indication that drug intervention programs are having an impact -- because addicts steal from the easiest sources first.
"They rob family and friends first," says Kasten. "As family and friends become aware of the addiction problem, they take measures that make it harder for the addict to steal from them."
"As we continue to address the opioid epidemic it is likely we’ll see more desperate people resort to methods that are more extreme," says Kasten.
Robbing a convenience store at night is one example. Typically there is no one in the store except the clerk. The robber leaves quickly with a small amount of cash, usually less than $100. Desperation, brought on by a drug habit, is what causes someone to risk jail time for petty cash.
The odds are pretty good that the addict will eventually be caught. Vermont State Police report clearing about a third of their robbery cases. Kasten says that 85 percent of the prison population is incarcerated for drug-related crimes such as trafficking and robbery.
The police have digital technology on their side. Video surveillance systems are ubiquitous in rural Vermont and the police are able to crowdsource a robber's identity by releasing photos and live video via Facebook to newspapers, television stations and digital outlets such as dailyUV.com. Videos taken by witnesses on their cell phones play a role as well.
The main thing that will bring an end to these opportunistic robberies, according to Kasten, is to combat the drug problem as a health crisis. Law enforcement can apprehend the robbers, but it takes a community effort to get an addict into treatment before he robs another convenience store. In the end, Kasten actually sees something positive in the recent robberies. "We are making some headway because this tells us families and neighbors are listening."