Smalltown, USA

Tiny town, peaceful streets...what could go wrong?Vermont is a small state. Population-wise, it ranks #48 out of 50 states. We have a total of just over 600,000 people, most located in small towns. Our largest city has a population of 40,000 or so, and our state college, the University of Vermont, has a larger population than all but five of Vermont’s cities. Vermonters love the notion that they’re part of a small, independent-minded, and practical community. Problems from the outside world, like crime, drugs, and government corruption, have no place here. At least, that’s what many folks here want to believe. Whenever anything really bad happens, I hear the same thing: “How can that type of thing happen here? We’re such a small community!”

The notion that serious crimes never happen in a small state is naïve. In the last few years, this state has seen a gunman shoot several people at a local elementary school and then himself. There has been a double homicide, a murder-suicide, two disappearances, and a college student who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Sure, the volume of crimes might not match up to Detroit or Los Angeles, but that hardly means they don’t happen here. The crimes in the last few months are not an isolated blip, either. I’ve lived in Vermont for almost 30 years, and in that time I’ve read about shootings, stabbings, drunk drivers, school violence, and more. My high school had three separate bomb threats in one year, and one of my oldest friends is currently serving a life sentence for killing his two foster parents. That’s just the big stuff that hits the papers, too; it’s not taking into account other items that land in the back headlines such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and arson. Vermont is not by any means a cesspool of crime, but these things do happen, just as they do in any community, large or small. The only people who don’t think that bad things happen in their small towns are people who either don’t pay attention or are deliberately ignorant of the world around them.

One major difference exists between the crimes in a small town and the crimes in a larger community. That difference is in the reactions to local crimes. I’m not talking about the aforementioned people who insist that nothing ever happens in their sleepy little communities. I’m talking about what happens when that “nothing bad ever happens” mentality leaks into the local law enforcement. Most police officers in Vermont don’t have to deal with more than shoplifters and traffic violations. If they run into a murder or a kidnapping, it’s often the type of thing that only happens once or twice in an entire career. The result is often that the police don’t practice for these relatively rare events. The authorities are members of the community, and as a community we’ve convinced ourselves that serious crime is something for big cities like Boston or New York, not tiny villages like Charlotte or Morrisville. People in general, including police officers and other authorities, pretend that these major crimes are isolated incidents that will never happen to them. Unfortunately, that means that when it does happen to them, they don’t know how to respond.

Of the crimes I listed in recent years, two of them got seriously screwed up procedurally. One of the other crimes, the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a college student, tore the community apart emotionally. To add fuel to the flames, one of the FBI officers involved in the case wrote an account of his investigation which included confidential information about the investigation. This account got put into a local paper, the editor of which then claimed that it was her right to do so, citing freedom of expression. Now, it’s true that the paper was within its rights to print the story. That said, that story wound up forming the basis of the defense’s motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that it has biased the community and made it impossible to find an impartial jury. Simply put, because a few people didn’t understand that just catching the bad guy doesn’t mean the day is saved, a murderer and rapist was almost put back on the streets

Because I love to talk about myself, I’ll give another example. When I was working at a convenience store one night, I got robbed. The robber wasn’t very smart; he made off with money and cigarettes, but also stayed long enough to get caught by the security camera. He wore a nylon stocking over his head which didn’t quite conceal his personal features. He left a full hand print on the lottery glass at the register, and he turned around to threaten me as he left, giving me plenty of time to note his height on the tape measure behind him. The town police almost instantly figured out who the guy was, but they took their sweet time in going after him. By the time they really started the case, the robber had left the state, getting away with his crime.

The problem with the gaffes in law enforcement in these cases isn’t necessarily police incompetence; cops make mistakes, just like everyone else. To a large extent, the problem is that the small communities of Vermont allow themselves to believe that bad things will never happen. As a result, they leave themselves unprepared when those things do happen. We forget basic things, like the fact that just arresting a murderer isn’t enough. There has to be a trial, too. And doing something stupid like publishing news that could get the trial thrown out is doing a disservice to the community at large. I’m not saying that people in small towns need to live in fear, but it doesn’t hurt to be somewhat educated about the criminal justice process. Learning how a police investigation goes down or what a criminal trial entails goes a long way towards ensuring that people don’t make stupid mistakes like those mentioned above. People who live in Smalltown, USA shouldn’t be afraid to leave their homes, but they also shouldn’t live under the delusion that they’re immune to the types of problems larger cities face. Just look at the last few years here in Vermont for an example.

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