Tom Anderson, who’s been commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety since 2017, says stepping down from the job is bittersweet.
“It’s really been an honor to serve as commissioner of public safety,” he said. “I love the job. … I think the mission of the Department of Public Safety is critically important. We’re different than any other agency in the state. We’re responsible for the safety of every Vermonter and every person that visits Vermont. That is an awesome responsibility.”
He gets regular reminders of just how many people visit Vermont every year, since Anderson is a Stowe resident with deep roots here.
His parents called Stowe home, and Anderson moved back to Stowe two years ago after working at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
Originally, he thought his wife, Wendy, would join him in Stowe six months later, but after she got a promotion at work, the couple agreed to prioritize her career.
Tom and Wendy Anderson have been married 38 years and have three grown children, one of whom, Betsy Anderson, lives in Stowe and ran for state’s attorney last year.
Anderson says one of his biggest focuses as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which includes Vermont State Police, is getting a handle on the opioid public health crisis.
Anderson’s been cast as a hardliner on Vermont’s ballooning opioid epidemic, but says his views are more nuanced than the way they’re often portrayed.
He does believe law enforcement action, including arrests, is the best way to handle people who are distributing drugs, but sees shades of gray with those who grapple with substance dependence.
“When I first started, I heard the statistic that three out of four heroin addicts started on pills. I didn’t believe that at first. That wasn’t my experience,” Anderson said. “It was really just people looking for the next high. They started on alcohol, moved on to marijuana, then the next drug and the next drug, and it ends with opioids. …
“After looking at the statistics and the amount of prescriptions being issued and the amount of pills being distributed, I did a 180 on that. I do believe that most of this problem has been a result of overprescribing opioids,” Anderson said.
“Demand reduction is what’s going to solve the problem. … Prevention on the front end is crucial.”
People struggling with addiction should be steered toward treatment options, and those distributing drugs should be imprisoned, Anderson said.
“Law enforcement plays a huge role in the overall ending of the epidemic,” Anderson said. “People need to understand that, if you are distributing this poison,” you will be charged with a crime, Anderson said.
“I am not one that says, ‘If you are an addict, you should be locked up.’ I don’t think we’re doing that. I think that’s a false narrative, that the jails are full of people with drug addictions,” he said. “… But people who are distributing this poison, that’s a different ballgame. Law enforcement plays a significant role in deterring that conduct.
“The alternative is, we just let it happen, and to me, that’s just not acceptable.”
He praised the Vermont Department of Health for its work monitoring opioid prescriptions.
While Anderson doesn’t see marijuana as a gateway drug, he doesn’t think a taxed and regulated cannabis market should have a place in Vermont’s economy, at least not until roadside testing is readily available so police can spot impaired drivers.
“I posed some questions to the Legislature. They’re supposed to make laws that are good for public policy. I think the questions I had was, does this bill enhance youth well-being? Does this bill protect the public, and does the bill ultimately serve the overall health and welfare of Vermonters? I think if the answer to any of those questions is no, it’s hard to vote yes on that,” Anderson said.
But he describes himself as a realist, and “I think the tax-and-regulate market is inevitable. … I just think Vermonters should go in with their eyes open.”
A roadside test is years away, Anderson said, and even if the technology were available tomorrow, the Vermont Supreme Court would have to decide whether cannabis roadside test results will be legally admissible in court.
Racial bias and transparency
Anderson is proud of Vermont State Police’s efforts to ferret out racial biases in policing.
He said the department has had a fair and impartial policing policy for 10 years, and its committee on fair and impartial policing meets four times a year and serves as an advisory board to Vermont State Police.
He says that committee has several non-white members.
“The state police is leading the country in this area,” Anderson said. “We work on it every single day. It’s become part of our teaching at the police academy for all incoming recruits. We’re collecting better data on stops. … It’s not something you ever declare victory on. It’s something you work on and continue to work on all the time.”
He said the department is now looking at passengers inside vehicles in which drugs were found, to differentiate in data reporting who was carrying the drugs.
Part of gathering data is releasing it to the public to show what their police department is doing, and Anderson said he does his best to walk a fine line between allowing people the information to which they’re entitled and maintaining the integrity of police investigations.
“I have tried to be as transparent as I possibly can be at the Department of Public Safety. I’m not sure if I can ever be transparent enough for the media,” Anderson said with a good-natured acknowledgment of the public’s right to know.
“I have tried to instill a culture of transparency. … I’m in the process of creating a unit just to respond to Public Records Act requests.”
Anderson says the state police get more public records requests than any other state agency, and the delivery process “seemed a little haphazard,” so Anderson pulled a paralegal position from elsewhere and set the person to work on public records requests.
“The law is, everything we do is public. That’s the presumption, that everything we do, everything we write, every document we create is a public document, and unless it fits in with the very specific exceptions, we’re turning it over,” Anderson said.
More than just the police
Anderson pointed out that, while Vermont State Police is the biggest division of the Department of Public Safety, it’s not the only one.
He’s also proud of his work with the Vermont state forensics lab, the Vermont Department of Emergency Management and the Vermont Division of Fire Safety.
He says the forensics lab is the third-largest division within the department, with almost 50 employees.
For Anderson, the fire and emergency management divisions of his department are a source of great personal pride.
“I look at those people as the sentries. They’re the ones who are out on the wall making sure we’re safe, and when something bad is potentially going to happen, they’re the ones that Vermonters rely on to make sure that we’re prepared for it and we’re responding to it appropriately,” he said.
He spoke admiringly of volunteer firefighters, such as Stowe’s, calling them “critical” to fire management and protection across the state.
He declined comment on the slowdown of volunteerism across the state.
He’ll be back
Anderson said although he’s moving to Washington, D.C.. to be with his wife and “kick the tires on being semi-retired,” he thinks the family will return to Vermont eventually.
He earned a degree in economics from St. Michael’s College in Colchester in 1979, then earned a law degree from Seton Hall University. He spent eight years in the U.S. attorney’s office for Vermont, including five years as the assistant U.S. attorney and three years in the top job. He then spent eight years as deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice before returning to Vermont to be the public safety commissioner.
“Vermont’s in our blood,” Anderson aid with a chuckle. “Like a bad penny, I just keep coming back.”