'My Neighbor Has A Car From New York In The Driveway.' Reporter Plumbs Vermont's COVID-19 Tip Line
In March, Vermont was rapidly coming to grips with the threat of the coronavirus. Gov. Phil Scott halted in-person schooling mid-month, and his "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order closed many nonessential businesses and limited public gatherings. By mid-April, Vermont started to "flatten the curve" and a phased economic reopening had begun. But with many restrictions still in place, the state set up an emergency tip line to report health risks and non-compliance with emergency orders. But did the tip line actually help?
Our guest is:
- Sawyer Loftus, VT Digger intern and reporter who spent weeks digging throughmore than 800 reports and 1,600 tips that came into the tip line since April.
Broadcast live on Monday, Aug. 31 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
Jane Lindholm: So what is the actual aim of the tip line? Is it to be able to police violations? To just give people an outlet? What do officials tell you?
Sawyer Loftus: The system is run by the Department of Public Safety, which encompasses the Vermont State Police. So you almost expect there to be some sort of law enforcement action. But in fact, the uniform approach to these complaints has been education.
The primary goal is to take these tips. And then if if it is deemed a tip that needs action, someone from the Department of Public Safety or another state agency or even local law enforcement will go out and engage in some sort of educational conversation with the person who may be violating rules.
How often has that been happening, where there's actually a follow up to a tip or a potential violation?
That's actually really difficult to tell from the paper trail that's provided. Which begs the question: how uniform was the system?
There are a handful of cases that have been very clearly earmarked as "referred to the attorney general's office for further law enforcement action." But when I talked to Commissioner Michael Sherling from the Department of Public Safety, he couldn't really point where each and every single case went, just because of the magnitude. And if you go on and the link is still live, they tell you up front when you fill out the form online, that they're not monitoring the form daily, or even live. And if it's an emergency, you need to hang up or you need to log out and call 9-1-1. So it's kind of difficult to tell how far those have gone, and even if that education worked.
It sounds like, Sawyer, you may be the person who knows the most about each and every one of the "tips" that have come in because you spent so much time looking through all of them. How did you get your hands on them and what kind of themes did you see emerging?
I made a public records request with the Department of Public Safety, specifically through the Vermont State Police. They sent me about 800 of these - about half - of these reports. Additionally, they sent a spreadsheet of all 1,600 that they had received so far, that I could use to put some graphs together and look at the data.
The biggest theme I saw was that, honestly, these tips were kind of petty. It's hard to say that there is a specific health risk.
And then, it's kind of that question of like, well, who decides what that health risk is as well? There are the "Hey my neighbor has a car in the driveway from New York, across the street.”
Or for example, the first case that was submitted into the system on April 3 was about a Craigslist ad in Rutland for someone advertising their home as a "Corona-hideout." So there's a lot of things like that.
But then, there are also a handful, again, that are really specific and have been earmarked by someone on the back-end of the system who said, "OK, these need to be referred to the attorney general's office for further action or evaluation." Two of those came from Richford around a business and how they were operating. So it's kind of a wide array of scenes, and it's hard to pinpoint one.
You did see in some cases that the tip was read and that there was a followup action needed, such that it was presumably sent to the appropriate agency?
Yeah. One of the ways that they tracked that was there was a person that was fielding phone calls at a time and he would manually log those cases into the system. And that's where you see the most paperwork and trail as to what happens to each of these cases. And in those specific situations, they'll tell you that a case number was entered for a local law enforcement department and then from there the trail stops. So from there, it's difficult to say what happens next.
I'm curious, since you've spent so much time looking at this tip line and thinking about it, if you think it holds value, either as a place for people to vent or as a place for followup action. Is having a tip line like this, if most of the complaints are, "petty," a valuable thing for Vermont to have?
I think for individual Vermonters, it provides an outlet where they can feel like their concerns are being placed in a constructive way and are hopefully being heard by authorities. And I think that even if there is this slim chance of catching a singular event that's happening, that would be a public health emergency or threat to public health, it's worth it.
But I would say from digging through all of this, it's hard for me to tell what exactly the Department of Public Safety would like to get out of this information, because a lot of the information has really important spelling errors or geographic information is missing.
So there's tons of cases for Rutland, but also Rutland City. And then sometimes people are just they just do Rutland. It can be really hard to tell what is actually going on, on the ground. So I struggle to see what the value would be from a law enforcement aspect.
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