Crime and Justice

AG’s look at old use-of-force case prompts new questions

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan is reviewing the case against St. Albans police officer Joel Daugreilh. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

A former St. Albans police officer denied Tuesday a charge of simple assault for allegedly pepper-spraying in the face a handcuffed 18-year-old man in custody in a holding cell, without appearing to give any verbal commands or warnings. 

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan reversed course this week and charged Joel Daugreilh, 34, a former corporal in the city’s police department who has since resigned, after earlier declining to prosecute the case. 

Daugreilh is accused of pepper-spraying Nathan Willey, now 21, of St. Albans, while Willey was handcuffed inside the police station in November 2017. 

Daugreilh pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor offense during a brief arraignment hearing Tuesday in criminal court in St. Albans, and he was released on conditions. He faces up to a year in jail, if convicted.

It was a rare reversal for the Vermont Attorney General. Donovan changed course after his office faced the prospect of a release of records and video of the incident. 

Donovan denied in an interview after Daugreilh’s arraignment that the potential release of those records and video played a role in his decision.

“I always reserve the right when I hear new information or different information to change my mind,” Donovan said. “When you’re in leadership you have to be willing to say I may have gotten something wrong, I want to take a second look, I want to get a second opinion.”

Donovan said the arrest in November 2019 of a different now-former St. Albans police officer, Jason Lawton, on a simple assault charge, was a big factor in his decision to take another look at the Daugreilh case. 

Lawton allegedly punched a woman in the face while she was handcuffed in police custody. 

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Donovan said the two cases, Lawton and Daugreilh, involved “similar” conduct. They are also, according to VPR, the only two cases where Donovan has brought criminal charges against officers in 17 use-of-force probes since taking office in 2017. 

Joel Daugreilh
Joel Daugreilh, a former St. Albans police officer, is charged with a misdemeanor simple assault for pepper-spraying a handcuffed man in a jail cell in 2017. Provided photo

Shortly after Lawton was charged, VPR made a public records request in December 2019, to get the Attorney General’s Office’s records related to earlier use-of-force decisions by Donovan, including the one not to bring charges against Daugreilh.

Donovan initially decided in the summer of 2018 not to prosecute Daugreilh, but then in January the attorney general said he was reopening the case. The attorney general’s office then put the brakes on the records request as the matter remained under investigation. 

Donovan said Tuesday that the Lawton case put the Daugreilh matter back on his “radar,” and as the public records request was pending he learned new information about that earlier probe. 

In that investigation, the attorney general said, his office consulted with an expert, Drew Bloom, the director of administration for the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. At that time, Donovan said, it was his understanding that Bloom had found the use of force to be reasonable. 

“A member of my team reached out during the time of the processing of the public records request and talked to Drew Bloom,” Donovan said, adding that he learned this time that Bloom was “more equivocal” in his opinion.

“It was not, I would say, as firm as the first opinion was represented to me,” Donovan said. 

Bloom could not be reached Tuesday for comment. 

The attorney general conceded that his office may be relying too much on use-of-force experts when reviewing such cases. 

“I was always troubled by this case, it never sat well with me, I was surprised that the conclusion was that it was a reasonable use of force,” Donovan said of the expert’s opinion. “Obviously, that causes us some trouble prosecuting the matter.” 

Former St. Albans police officer Sgt. Jason Lawton.

Donovan said he, too, had reviewed the video in the case and made the ultimate decision at that time to not move forward with a prosecution.

According to an affidavit filed Tuesday in support of the charge against the officer, a conversation took place between Bloom and former Assistant Attorney General Evan Meenan in May 2018, before Donovan originally decided against prosecuting Daugreilh.

“During the conversation,” the affidavit stated, “Bloom told Meenan initially he couldn’t formulate an opinion on “reasonable or unreasonable,” and later stated it was “reasonable” because Willey was actively resisting.

Donovan said upon learning of Bloom’s equivocation, it prompted him to get an opinion from a second use-of-force expert, Steve Ijames, a longtime officer in Springfield, Missouri, who has worked with law enforcement agencies across the country on use of force matters. 

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Ijames is the same expert Donovan used to review a different use of force. In that case, the attorney general declined to charge Cory Campbell, a Burlington Police officer, after he punched  Douglas Kilburn in a dispute last year. Kilburn died days later.  

In the Daugreilh matter, Ijames determined that it was not a reasonable use of force, prompting the filing of the simple assault charge against the officer.

“The decision by Officer Daugreilh to use OC spray on Mr. Nathan Willey was inappropriate and inconsistent with contemporary and professional police training, policy and practice,” an affidavit filed in court Tuesday said of Ijames’ conclusion.

The filing of the charge may result in a trial where ultimately a jury would decide. 

“I think this is the right call,” Donovan said. “Now it’s going to be up to Vermonters to decide through the legal process whether or not this was reasonable or unreasonable and therefore a crime or not a crime.”

Donovan also said Tuesday he was unwilling to release the videos related to the case at this time. “Whenever it gets admitted into court it will be a matter of public record,” the attorney general said.  

An affidavit filed in support of the charge does provide new details into what videos from the officer’s body cam as well as from other cameras inside the station show. 

Daugreilh reported to investigators that Willey had been disruptive at the station, and at one point, according to the affidavit, a video shows the officer hurrying back to the cell. 

At the cell, the door was open and Willey, handcuffed, was shown sitting on a bench. He appearing not to be resisting as the officer approached him, the affidavit stated. 

Franklin Superior Court
Franklin County Superior Court building in St. Albans. Photo by Peng Chen/VTDigger

“In the video, Willey dropped his head and turned his head to the right, away from Daugreilh’s position,” according to the affidavit. “Daugreilh then uses his left hand to grab Willey’s head by his forehead or hair and forcibly pushes Willey’s head back against the cell wall.” 

Next, the affidavit stated, “Daugreilh then stated, ‘Do not kick my door,’ and administered his OC spray into Willey’s eyes from a close distance. Willey then started to cry and Daugreilh exited the cell.” 

According to the affidavit, Daugreilh did not appear to give any verbal commands or warning to Willey before spraying him. As the officer left the cell, the affidavit stated, he could be heard saying, “ah, fucking twat.” 

The filing added, “It was not clear if the derogatory comments were directed at Willey, or because Daugreilh was also incapaciated by the OC spray deployment.” 

The criminal cases involving Lawton and Daugreilh were among a string of probes and resignations in recent years in the St. Albans police department.

St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud said Tuesday the department is moving forward and working to improve its hiring practices in light of the cases. 

Cloud said the Daugreilh case dates back to 2017, and the city asked state police to investigate shortly after the incident occurred.

The city conducted its own internal investigation, and in the middle of that probe, Cloud said, Daugreilh resigned. 

“He saw the writing on the wall,” the city manager said, adding that the termination of the officer would have been the outcome of that investigation once completed.

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