Top Cop Talks of the Challenges of the Job

NEWPORT CITY – Newport Rotarians heard from Vermont’s top cop, Commissioner of Public Safety, Keith Flynn, during their weekly meeting at the Gateway Center Tuesday.Flynn spoke about his job and some of the issues facing the state.The Department of Public Safety (DPS) is comprised of the Vermont State Police, Emergency Management, Division of Fire Safety and the Criminal Justice Services. DPS has about 650 people and it administers a budget of about $92 million a year. The Vermont State Police has about 327 sworn members, about 90 dispatchers and a number of civilian personnel, and has 12 barracks throughout the state. In addition to patrol duties and investigative functions, the state police has a tactical support unit, search and rescue squad, arson investigators, hostage negotiation unit, drug enforcement unit, and a new unit that deals with gang affiliations and the effects of organized crime on the state.Emergency Management, which came to the forefront during Hurricane Irene, deals with planning and coordination, including overseeing local emergency planning, Citizen Emergency Response Teams and regional planning. Emergency Management also staffs and runs the Governor’s Operation Center. Flynn is the one who decided to close the Governor’s Emergency Operation Center 14-hours into Tropical Storm Irene. Before closing, Flynn had to call the governor, which made him uncomfortable. The decision to close the center turned out to be the right decision. Two hours later, the power went out and access to cable went out.“We had absolutely nothing,” Flynn said. The state moved operations to Burlington within three hours after making the decision to close the center. “It was really quite an accomplishment for the emergency management within my division.”The Division of Fire Safety runs the Vermont Fire Academy in Pittsford and performs all the firefighter training. Instructors with vans and trailers provide training to anyone who wants to be a firefighter in the state. The division also runs the hazardous materials response team. The division works with fire and safety and emergency management at Vermont Yankee, which includes monitoring the tritium wells, monitoring radiation levels and taking care of emergency planning in and around the plant.The Division of Fire Safety also does commercial building code compliance, fire safety for electric compliance, plumbing and elevator inspections. Criminal Justice Services is DPS’ way of managing data and communications. It runs the inter-operable communication system for police, fire and emergency medical services. It runs the Vermont Criminal Information Center and the Vermont Forensic Laboratory, which includes the computer forensic laboratory. DPS also runs the Data Master, which tests how much alcohol a person has in his or her system. It is working on making the system capable of testing for different types of drugs instead of having to send samples to labs out of state. In addition, DPS runs the sex offender registry and the marijuana registry. The marijuana registry, said Flynn, has gained a lot of media attention as of late, because the registry is connected with marijuana dispensaries. Flynn is the governor’s representative for the National Highway Safety Program. “One of things we do, and it’s been a major point during my tenure, is we’ve really tried to move to a database program and more of an evidence based analysis in everything we’re doing from budgeting through how we’re actually deploying resources,” said Flynn.Part of that database includes keeping an eye on motor vehicle fatalities. Some of the numbers are interesting because they allow police to detect specific trends and respond to them. So far, there have been 37 fatalities in the state this year, Flynn said. The average age of the person killed is 38. Of that, 26 were males and 11 females. The most common month for fatalities this year is January. The most common day has been early Sunday. Thirteen of the 37 were killed in accidents on the Interstate.“We can accomplish this by being more effective in our education piece and our enforcement piece,” Flynn said. “Sixty-seven percent of the people would have had a better chance if they were wearing seatbelts.” Flynn can’t say a seatbelt will save everyone involved in an accident, but they will have a better chance at surviving.The DPS is also launching a speed reduction program this week. National surveys have told police that excessive speed caused 30 percent of fatal crashes. “In Vermont, 11 of our 37 accidents were blamed solely on excessive speed,” said Flynn. Since January, consumption of alcohol caused 16 of the fatal accidents and five were drug related.Opiate abuse is one of the drivers for crime in the state, said Flynn. The drugs come from prescription fraud and individuals diverting drugs like Vicodin. When asked by police, drug users often say they are always chasing the next high, Flynn said.“As a state, we need to find ways to get more effective and produce better results as far as our opiate addiction programs” said Flynn. “As the prices go up on the street, the demand for heroin increases and we do not need a heroin problem in the state. We know the problems it has caused other areas. We’re going to get more aggressive than we have been.”Police also realize there is no silver bullet to the problem, said Flynn. He said the state needs educational programs to outline the problems drugs can cause. Flynn pointed out that no fourth or fifth grader says when they want to grow up that they want to be addicted to heroin. There also needs to be strong law enforcement. The state also needs an appropriate and comprehensive addiction program in place.“It’s one thing to arrest people, but we cannot arrest ourselves out of the opiate problem in the State of Vermont,” said Flynn. “We have to have meaningful rehabilitation so we have all three pieces at the same time. We need to look at it as comprehensively so we can make Vermont what we want it to be. Right now, we’re the second safest place to live, but that’s not good enough.”