Records and ‘telling details’ about police beating finally released in Hartford

Wayne Burwell

Wayne Burwell in 2007. Photo courtesy the Valley News

I placed a public records request on July 13, 2010, with the Town of Hartford asking for documents I knew would be hard to get. Town police officers had allegedly beaten, pepper sprayed and handcuffed a dazed black man in his own home. I wanted the 911 tapes, dashcam recordings, statements and reports. Two other news organizations — the Associated Press and the Valley News — had already asked for the records and had been turned down.

It was easy to see why. The situation was embarrassing for police. The story had already been publicized in a gripping column by Jim Kenyon of the Valley News. Not long afterward, Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont ACLU, penned an op-ed in which he called the beating of Wayne Burwell, the victim of the Hartford Police beating, a “carbon copy” of the arrest of noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who the summer before was apprehended by police for allegedly breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Mass.

Kenyon gathered information from neighbors and interviewed Burwell, but the details of exactly what happened inside the condo were unknown. The police department went mum and Burwell was in a state of diabetic shock at the time of the incident and couldn’t remember what happened.

The gist of the story at that point was this: The Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Hartford Police went to what they thought was a possible burglary at a condo in a new subdivision in Wilder, Vt. A housekeeper had called dispatch. She had entered the condo, saw smoke from an overturned lamp and a naked black man who “wasn’t responsive.” The house, she said, looked “ransacked.”

Police entered the home and found Burwell sitting naked on a toilet.

One neighbor told Kenyon that Burwell had been pepper sprayed, hit with a baton, handcuffed and hauled out on the steps of the condo by police. Once police realized Burwell actually lived in the home, they took the handcuffs off. Burwell, a graduate of Dartmouth College and well-respected physical trainer, resided there with his daughter.

Shortly afterward, the Vermont State Police investigated the incident, and it wouldn’t be long before Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell would review the case.

At the time, I was working as a volunteer for VTDigger.org, an online-only news website I founded in 2009. I had a home office, and the operation consisted of an advisory board, fiscal status through another nonprofit and several other volunteers.

I was working on a story about racial profiling incidents and included a synopsis of the Burwell case in the overview. After the story was published, I placed a public records request with the Town of Hartford, which was rejected. My appeal to Hartford was also denied.

The Vermont-ACLU offered to sue on my behalf. At first, I was ambivalent about the prospect. Should a news organization, even a fledgling one, team up with an advocacy group?

We went to court, and the long legal battle began. Dan Barrett, the Vermont ACLU’s lawyer, made our case in Windsor Superior Court in the fall of 2010. We waited. We lost in 2011. We appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court and the justices heard our case last December.

I knew I couldn’t pursue the case on my own, I didn’t have money to pay myself as an employee of VTDigger.org, let alone hire a lawyer, but I believed the case was vitally important, not only for journalists and the public who had a right to know what actions police had taken, but also for Burwell who was not conscious during the attack.

We went to court, and the long legal battle began. Dan Barrett, the Vermont ACLU’s lawyer, made our case in Windsor Superior Court in the fall of 2010. We waited. We lost in 2011. We appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court and the justices heard our case last December. Would the justices agree with the attorneys for the town, who believed opening the records would be a violation of Wayne Burwell’s privacy? Would they agree with the defense that Burwell was not charged with a crime and therefore had not been arrested? Would they agree with us and order the release of the records?

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in our favor on Aug. 3, and required that the Town of Hartford turn over everything I requested.

I received the documents, two years and three weeks after I placed my original request: a packet of CDs, and 28 pages of incident reports, 911 call reports, statements from witnesses and narratives from police officers.

Ironically, the very same documents had been made available to Burwell on Sept. 22, 2010. The Town of Hartford entered into a confidentiality agreement with Burwell. They would give him the documents, if he agreed not to sue or to release the information to anyone else. It’s not clear why they would flout the public records law to make such an agreement.

A week before the Vermont Supreme Court decision, news came out that Burwell had decided to sue the town. Burwell gave the documents to the Valley News, which immediately published a story detailing what happened that Saturday afternoon more than two years ago.

What do the records tell us? That officers entered the home with guns drawn (one of the officers carried a rifle). Once they found Burwell sitting unresponsive on the toilet they repeatedly pepper sprayed him in the face. Burwell reacted to the spray and tried to walk away (toward the officers). They wrestled him to the ground and attempted to handcuff him, and when he pulled away, one officer grunted with effort as he beat Burwell with a nightstick. Eventually, they handcuffed him. They threw a blanket on him and hauled him downstairs onto the front steps of his apartment.

The officers described Burwell in statements as “muscular” and “very large.” In the video clips from the police car dashcam, Burwell who stands up briefly, staggering in apparent shock, is no taller than the officers, and is more slightly built.

For about 15 minutes of the clip, officers help him try to wash the pepper spray from his eyes every few minutes. His body is agitated and he thrashes as he lays on the pavement rubbing his face, with only a blanket around his waist.

It’s the telling details that matter. Often those details only come to light when records are made available to the public.

Anne Galloway is the founder of VTDigger.org, a Montpelier-based online news organization and a project of the Vermont Journalism Trust.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Jesus Ortiz :

    Thank you Ms. Galloway for your patience in this matter and for pursuing the truth so steadfastly. The event this post sheds light on was a disgraceful incident and I hope that Mr. Burwell is able to put this event behind him – right after he and his legal team overwhelmingly win their lawsuit against the offending police department.

  2. And to date not one elected politician or police officer has offered to protect the public from police brutality.

  3. Fred Woogmaster :

    “It’s the telling details that matters.” Indeed!
    Thank you Anne Gallloway. May justice prevail!

  4. Christian Noll :

    Way to go Anne..

    Shame on you Town of Hartford.

    SHAME on you people!

    The police investigating the police? How can they hold their heads up?

    This is 2012 not 1862 ! The new Jim Crow wears a badge and carries a gun. Shame on Vermont !

    Vermonters beware.

    Thank you Anne Galloway for your diligence and tenaciousness in dealing with these people.

  5. Alex Barnham :

    I am still shaking my head in disbelief that this type of stupidity is still going on. With all the money in the police dept budgets, one would surmise that it is being spent to properly teach the employees. Instead the money is perpetuating the same old heavy-handed tactics that scare rather than protect the taxpayers. How much longer do we have to suffer from professional politicians whose mindset is to protect their cushions?

  6. Barry Kade :

    Thanks Anne. Our Public Records Law must be changed so that the police can no longer hide behind the “criminal investigation” statutory exemption. The exemption should balance the needs of the police to keep some information secret so that they can do their work, with the need of the public to know how their police are behaving, so that the people may hold their servants accountable. See Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution.

    • Alex Barnham :

      How can we possibly hold the police accountable? We are being milked within an inch of our lives.

    • Alex Barnham :

      The secrecy of the police is a mere symptom of the military secrecy that has ruined our ability to be a world leader. We have turned into a global bully literally terrorizing the world under the guise of waging a war on terror. This is what secrecy does to people. They become immune to investigation. Our next quest is military secrecy that has immobilized the US Constitution and has basically set up a dictatorship. The Senate has basically rubber-stamped the US president as a dictator with the right to put anyone in jail without a trial for any reason whatsoever. There is no more balance to power in DC. Our apathy has turned our military and police into veritable terrorists. Next time you check in at your local airport, you can thank the former secretary of homeland insecurity, Michael Chertoff, for the unsafe backscatter x-ray machines for which he had a blatant conflict of interest.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Chertoff

  7. Fred Woogmaster :

    Mr. Kade: I agree. Is there something in the works that will change ‘Our Public Records Law’? If not – what is the process for change?

  8. Tom Karov :

    These public records issues, (exemption for police under verious bogus excuses) the main one being “On-going investagation” has been,and will continue to be misused until a very large number of complaints are made directly to our represenatives in Montpelier for strict changes to the law. It is clear that the AGs office has no interest in fulfilling the promise of (Transparency).

  9. Erhard Mahnke :

    Thank you, Anne, for pursuing this case and for your tenacity. What happened to Wayne Burwell should never happen again in VT. Absolutely shameful! Thank you for uncovering the truth.

    As the father of a young African-American man, I always worry that something like this will happen to him some day when he comes home to visit or, hopefully, eventually returns to VT to live. I don’t know which environment is unsafer for him, the mean streets of Baltimore, where he goes to college, or VT, where he has been stopped repeatedly by police for no apparent reason other than the color of his skin. Fortunately we live in Burlington, where the police are “relatively” sensitized to issues around racial profiling, but much of the rest of VT still seems to be in the dark ages.

  10. Ted Hobson :

    Here is a link to the A.G. finding no criminal culpability: http://www.readability.com/articles/dmxwlxgt

    From a lawyer’s point of view, having only a review as to whether the police should be criminally prosecuted (proof beyond a reasonable doubt) is unsatisfactory. Violation of civil rights can also be civil (preponderance of the evidence).

    This case is a good example why the ACLU has called for licensing of police and independent review of allegations of police misconduct. The A.G. is not independent, and in many instances involving State troopers, will be defending them in any civil action.

  11. Christian Noll :

    All the above posts are right on the money.

    See if you can spot the Vermont police in the video.

  12. It won’t change – we as honest citizens ( I’m not talking about if your a criminal, druggie or deviant ) need to take back our rights.
    Cops and lawyers are all in the same game of being YES people and LIARS – period.
    I went thru the same thing – there is not one lawyer or cop that is honest – period.
    They may have honest intentions at first – but soon convert to the regular routine that the system really is – and the idiot judges that believe that mess !
    Its a money making business and nothing else – I feel for Mr. Burwell.
    None of the cops or lawyers or judges would ever let someone of higher authority or anyone else treat them or there loved ones that way – and yet they can sleep at night knowing what they did to others.
    So basically the cops – lawyers or judges are the same deviants and hardend criminals that they lock up and the rest of us are collateral damage !
    C

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