By Carla Occaso
Berlin police have been stretched thin by disruptive activity at the Hilltop Inn in recent times and now the town is looking for solutions.
The latest report of dangerous criminal activity there happened May 26, when police received five separate calls reporting a man who was allegedly threatening and menacing people. He was also allegedly being disorderly. Calls came in from the Hilltop Inn as well as from an employee of North Country Federal Credit Union, just up the hill from the inn.
On that day, Dwayne R. Walker, 55, allegedly threatened and menaced an employee of the inn. Police took Walker into custody and contacted a judge, who gave Walker conditions of release.
The inn has become an increasing hub of activity since the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 forced the Vermont Agency of Human Services to relocate unhoused people out of group homes and into individual rooms to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as reported by The Bridge in April 2020.
Earlier this spring, at the April 4 Berlin Selectboard meeting, Berlin Police Chief James Pontbriand updated the board about the number and kinds of calls officers were responding to at the Hilltop Inn. “Many are related to fights requiring use of force,” meeting minutes state. As many as 90 residents were staying at the inn and at least five to six calls a day were made to the police department. Pontbriand told the board his department has reached out to the state but has not had any resolution.
He further expressed concern about losing Berlin police officers to injury or COVID-19 when responding to incidents. Selectboard member Carl Parton asked if the Vermont State Police could cover that one specific area, but Pontbriand reported he had been told ‘no’ in the past. Selectboard member Joe Staab said there have been at least 1,200 calls between the Hilltop and the Berlin Police Department in the previous 12 months.
So, what to do? Chief Pontbriand said during the meeting on April 4 his ideal outcome would be a reduction, or “draw down” of residents at the Hilltop, so his force would not be as exposed to risk. “We have eight positions in the police department, not including myself.” However, two of the positions are unfilled and two are not regularly coming in to work, so there are currently four officers available to respond to calls.
“If one of my officers gets hurt getting into a tussle, or gets COVID, it is going to be a problem. We are already at bare bones,” he said.
“Over the last month, we’ve had 150 calls over to the Hilltop, which is extraordinary.” Pontbriand described how he had implemented a foot patrol routine with the intent of deterring problems but calls still come in relating to citizen disputes, disorderly conduct, suspicious conduct, noise, trespassing, fights, disputes of all kinds, property issues, etc. “A couple of weeks ago we responded to a fight and had to use force to get it under control. Seconds after getting that situation under control, we got a report of another fight completely unrelated to that… .” Pontbriand told the board he wrote a letter to the Vermont Department for Children and Families (which funds emergency homelessness vouchers) describing the problem and asking the department to address it.
“I recognize the need for housing people, I really do. I just have the responsibility for the community as a whole,” Chief Pontbriand said.
Brad Towne, selectboard chair, suggested the chief get together with the town administrator and write a letter and send it to the governor for the board to sign and submit.
Meanwhile, the situation goes on. At the following meeting of the selectboard on April 18, board member Carl Parton threw out some ideas coming from another direction. Could the town work with either a state entity or a faith-based entity to organize group therapy sessions? Parton wondered if providing pizza and soda, and holding group therapy sessions in a conference room several days a week at the inn might do the trick. He said he was “thinking outside the box,” and trying to come up with ways to siphon the stress off the police department. “(No matter how they got here) They are still part of our community … we can either help them or look at them as a problem,” Parton said.