Gilbert: No one polices the police in Vermont

Editor’s note: This oped is by Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Since this oped was published on July 12, 2010, Anne Galloway, editor of vtdigger.org, has become a plaintiff in a Vermont-ACLU lawsuit questioning the Hartford Police Department’s unwillingness to release records of police actions that took place on May 29, 2010.

It sounds like a carbon copy of the Henry Louis Gates’ racial profiling case of last summer, only this time here in Vermont.

Police in Hartford respond to a call from a cleaning service of a suspected burglary at a townhouse. When police arrive, they enter the unit, find an African-American man sitting on a bathroom toilet somewhat dazed, and arrest him. He is handcuffed and dragged out of the unit, naked.

Neighbors — one of them a retired police officer — tries to tell the Hartford cops that the black man indeed owns and lives in the townhouse, and suffers from a serious medical condition. The cops tell the neighbors to back off or get arrested.

Indeed, there has been no robbery — only a mess created when the man slipped into a semi-conscious state because of a chronic blood-sugar imbalance.

Fortunately, EMTs arrive, recognize Dartmouth grad and local athletic trainer Wayne Burwell, and take him to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center right away. In addition to attending to the blood sugar condition, doctors put in stitches to close cuts caused by the restraints the cops had put on his wrists.

In the Gates case in Cambridge, Mass., city officials convened an outside, nonpartisan panel of law enforcement and legal experts to look into whether police had acted properly.

In the Burwell case in Hartford, police stonewall a request by the local newspaper, the Valley News, for the police incident or “blotter” report. Then the chief announces he has asked the Vermont State Police — his former employer — to review his department’s actions. No outside panel will look into the incident, much less the public.

That was in June. Meanwhile, in Barre last week, an officer uses a Taser on a man with mental health problems. Another officer stands by with a drawn gun, for back-up. When the police cite the man for disorderly conduct, the judge throws out the charge — because the man had exhibited no “violent, threatening, or tumultuous behavior.”

If a simple disorderly conduct charge can’t stick in a situation where police draw a firearm and shoot a Taser at someone, the inevitable question is, Was the police response appropriate? Again, no outside, impartial review is called to answer that question.

In Rutland, a lawsuit moves forward that involves police officers’ use of pepper spray on a man held in a prison cell, handcuffed and shackled. The incident, caught on police video and eventually posted online, shocks anyone who watches it.

Vermont is in desperate need of a better system of police accountability. In fact, there is no system, just a confused, decentralized muddle that leaves many citizens wondering who’s in charge.

The American Civil Liberties Union receives numerous complaints about police misconduct. The discouraging thing is that short of a lawsuit, it’s hard to sort out whether an officer acted inappropriately. The public is left not knowing who’s a good cop and who’s not. Police are left with a black eye that may, or may not, be deserved. Meanwhile, innocent people get hurt.

Nearly every profession in Vermont is regulated and governed by boards within the Secretary of State’s office or elsewhere in state government — but not law enforcement.

Instead, Vermont officers are “certified” by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council following a training course at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.

Until last year, there had been no process for decertification, as there is in 44 other states.

This meant that a Vermont officer could be found through an internal investigation to have committed any of a number of inappropriate or unauthorized actions, and be fired — only to pick up a job with another department in another part of the state.

However, in 2009 the Training Council exercised new authority and decertified Northfield Police Chief Jeffry Shaw for lying about training requirements. This was the first time a Vermont police officer had lost certification.

The vast majority of complaints about officers are handled through an investigation conducted by the officer’s employer — the police department itself or a local selectboard or city council.

Complaints against state police officers are also handled internally, by the Department of Public Safety’s State Police Advisory Commission.

In extreme cases, the Attorney General’s office handles complaints, but that’s rare.

What’s lacking in all these review procedures is the consistent oversight that could be provided by an independent body that would accept complaints from the public, regularly review license renewals, investigate any cases that may warrant license revocation, and report to the public. As with teachers, sanctions against officers could be posted on the Web.

And when newspapers or members of the public ask for police information covered by the state’s Public Records Act, police need to turn over the information as required, without delay. Embarrassment isn’t a legitimate reason for nondisclosure.

Until this happens, allegations of racial profiling by Vermont police will continue — as will accusations that police mistreat the mentally ill, abuse suspects, and misuse Tasers.

The Vermont Constitution vests with “the people of this state by their legal representatives” the “governing and regulating” of the state’s law enforcement officers. That’s a pretty solid basis for closer, more consistent oversight of the government officials to whom we’ve granted the authority to take away our liberties. The Legislature needs to understand that it’s supporting police, not undermining them, when statewide professional standards are put in place and the Public Records Act is followed. It’s to no one’s advantage to have bad cops on the beat.

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