Castleton State College students feel targeted by local police, the flashing blue lights haunting them everywhere they go.
The number of diversion tickets being processed through the Rutland County Court system, with a majority coming from Castleton, indicates they may be right.
“In the Fiscal year of 2013, between July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, we processed 372 underage drinking civil tickets and that’s only 80 percent of tickets actually given,” said Rick Bjorn, the executive director of Rutland Court Diversion Office.
That’s only eight tickets fewer than those handed out in Chittenden County in a year in a half, seven months longer. Chittenden County is the home to not only the largest college in the state, the University of Vermont, but also St. Michaels College and Champlain College.
“I feel like the cops around here are just way over the top,” said student Carole Frey.
Frey claims that one night she was hanging out with a few friends before leaving the next day to study abroad when suddenly multiple police officers showed up.
“It wasn’t even a party, I don’t know why they showed up. We were just hanging out,” said Frey.
Frey said she was on the couch when she heard the doors burst open. People scattered to escape, but Frey was not so lucky. Despite having only one drink the entire night, Frey was issued a diversion without being breath tested.
“Two of my friends got arrested and he didn’t even breathalize us. I wish he had, because I don’t think I would have blown anything,” said Frey.
Several students shared similar stories. But are police targeting students, or are they simply doing their job?
“We receive underage drinking tickets from most towns throughout Rutland County, but we do receive more from Castleton than any other town,” Bjorn said, adding that those tickets bring in about $46,000 a year.
When asked about these statistics, Castleton Chief of Police, Bruce Sherwin did not seem surprised.
“Burlington is a metropolitan area, they have UVM, Saint Mikes, Champlain and other colleges up there so if you look at those numbers and the percentage of tickets given per population, that definitely puts Castleton right up there,” said Sherwin.
“The Castleton police department alone, from January of last year to December issued 94 underage drinking tickets,” said Sherwin, adding that Fair Haven and State Police also give out diversions in the town.
In a survey of 50 students, 40 of 50 said they wished the police would ease up and give warnings occasionally.
“I think the Castleton cops should not assume the worst and understand that many of us do respect them as long as they respect us. We shouldn’t be targeted like this,” said Jessica Perkins.
Perkins and her housemate got into trouble with the Castleton Police last year.
“It was just eight of us at our house having a few beers when all of a sudden we saw flashing lights outside our house,” said Jaclyn Countryman, one of Perkins’ housemates.
The eight had just returned from the porch to come inside and hang out in the living room.
“They came out of no where, there was three or four cop cars outside and they began banging on our doors and flashing their flashlights in our windows,” said Countryman.
She ran upstairs and hid in her room.
“They even brought the liquor inspector and he kept demanding to let him inside,” said Countryman.
Perkins and Countryman later found out that their neighbors called the police because someone knocked on their windows and for noise complaints.
“If they got called for a noise complaint, that could have been anyone outside, why did their have to be three cop cars and a liquor inspector outside our house? I don’t get it,” continued Countryman.
Perkins and Countryman are still upset about the whole thing.
“I believe that we at least deserve warnings first and not tickets right away unless we are seriously hurting ourselves or others” said Perkins.
The Castleton Police Department, however, does not believe warnings are necessary.
“I understand this is a college town, but the incentive is, if you’re underage wyou just don’t drink. With a zero tolerance policy, which I believe we have to have in this town. If you’re underage and you’ve been drinking, you will get a ticket and that’s that,” said Sherwin.
Many Castleton students believe that students at other schools, even very large schools, have a better relationship with the police and they are envious of that.
“I think its really cool how the police in Burlington mix with the students there and understand that it’s a college area. Even though there are rules the students have to follow, there is still mutual respect and understanding from both ends,” said Owen Hartman, a student at Castleton.
Michael Schirling, chief of police in Burlington, takes a bit of a different approach than Sherwin.
“We tend to see more movement in the beginning of each semester. If there’s a bunch of people in a group we will most likely slow down and remind the students to be mindful of noise complaints, but we won’t usually detain someone unless we see an open container or acts of disturbance,” said Schirling.
But students say Castleton police often stop students who have no open containers.
“We look for open containers, if a student is walking around late at night or stumbling around,” said Sherwin.
So will Castleton students and police ever see eye to eye and feel mutually respected by one another or will students continue to think the police are a source of fear rather than a source of safety?
“Don’t you think I would want to have a relationship with the students here? Sherwin asked. “Of course I do. If you have a good relationship with us, you’re not going to be feeling like you’re targeted. You will be able to walk down the street and wave and won’t check to see if all five fingers are there,” said Sherwin.
“Plus it’s a lot less paperwork to do.”