A group of Barton residents want the town to hire its own police officers, citing a string of armed robberies in the past several months.
A handful of supporters presented the petition, signed by nearly 270 people, to selectboard members Thursday morning.
“I believe we need a localized officer in the township,” resident Leo McElroy said.
The petition drive comes amid a tumultuous year in the Orleans County town of fewer than 3,000 people. Since December, there have been at least five robberies in Barton, including two bank stick-ups. Four of the incidents involved the threat of weapons, according to Vermont State Police, and detectives are examining whether several of the cases are connected.
Some of the incidents became talking points in failed contract negotiations earlier this year with the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department, which had provided patrol services to the town.
Talks between the two sides soured amid an argument over proposed rate increases and concerns from town officials about a lack of service. Since Jan. 7, Barton hasn’t had a contract to supplement state police, the town’s primary law enforcement provider.
More than 50 of Vermont’s 246 municipalities have their own police departments. In some counties, sheriff’s departments offer patrol and policing services, charging a fee for each community based on how much policing it wants. Waterbury is experimenting with two state police troopers assigned to that town.
But the vast majority of Vermont towns rely on regular state police coverage.
Residents at the selectboard meeting Thursday approved of the job state troopers have been doing. But they want to see more.
“I’ve had to have new lights installed, security lights,” said the Rev. Ralph Fryman, pastor at Barton Baptist Church. He described witnessing drug deals across the street.
“It would just be nice if we had something,” Fryman said.
Catherine McMaster, owner of the Barton’s Memory Lane antique shop, said burglars had broken into her store years ago, stoking her concern about the incidents this year.
“They stole $20,000 worth of jewelry and money from me,” McMaster said of the burglary. “And I did call the sheriff’s department. It took them approximately three hours to get to me.”
She said patrols at night would be her top priority.
“I just feel we need something, something more than what we have right now,” she said.
Selectboard member Lenny Zenonos, a former police officer, cautioned that even if the town hired its own police, crime would still occur.
“I just want you to understand that this isn’t going to cure all the problems,” Zenonos said. “But it’s certainly going to help.”
McMaster said she was heartbroken over one of the latest incidents in Barton: a burglary May 5 at the popular C&C Market. Police said a person broke into the building, stole several items and caused thousands of dollars in property damage.
Police have said that incident followed a string of four other robberies that are now under the spotlight, dating back to Dec. 1, 2020. According to police:
— At about 9:15 that night, a masked man entered the Family Dollar on Main Street in Orleans, a village in Barton, displayed a weapon and demanded money. He left on foot with an undisclosed amount of cash. Investigators described the man as thin, white, about 6 feet tall, and wearing a dark sweatshirt and black pants.
— On Jan. 7, a man entered the Subway restaurant on Railroad Avenue in Orleans at about 6:10 p.m., claiming he had a firearm, and demanded money from the cash register. He took an undisclosed amount of cash from the register before fleeing. He was described as tall and thin and appeared to be wearing a wig with a mask covering his face.
— Almost a month later, state troopers were alerted to a robbery at about 6 p.m. at the TD Bank on Main Street in Barton. A man threatened to use a weapon if the bank tellers didn’t hand over money. He took an undisclosed amount of cash and left on foot. The man was described as standing between 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 10 inches tall, likely white, with an average build.
— And on April 19, state police responded to a robbery at the North Country Federal Credit Union on Main Street at about 3 p.m. A man in dark clothing had brandished a gun inside, then fled on foot, stole a bicycle and was picked up by someone in a car. That man was described as white, between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a slender build.
Surveillance cameras captured images of four of the suspects, according to troopers. In the December case, detectives have released only an image of a maroon SUV they said was used in the robbery.
Selectboard members said Thursday they wouldn’t take any action on the petition until they figured out cost details. Zenonos said the town’s law enforcement budget might go up by $60,000 if the town hired a police officer.
Once the numbers are crunched, town officials will host a public meeting for residents’ feedback, Zenonos said. He offered no timeline for when that might happen.
McElroy, who said he had led the petition drive, said he would like to start a neighborhood watch in Barton, even if the petition is successful.
“If there’s enough people that are willing and able, that’d be great,” Zenonos said.
Correction: The spelling of Lenny Zenonos’ last name has been corrected.
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