Five and a half months after Hardwick placed its police chief on leave, a formal investigation into the matter has only recently begun. Meanwhile, the town has already paid over $54,000 this year to an interim chief, in addition to keeping Police Chief Aaron Cochran on payroll.
The town plans to extend interim chief Mike Henry’s contract — initially set to run through June 30 — until Oct. 31 while the Williston Police Department conducts an investigation into Cochran’s professional conduct, according to Town Manager David Upson.
That investigation is the fourth in a series stemming from a May 2021 incident in which former Hardwick Police Sgt. Darin Barber took home a bottle of whiskey that had been confiscated as evidence, according to media reports at the time.
Upson confirmed that Cochran conducted an internal investigation of the incident, concluded that department policy was unclear about what to do with confiscated alcohol, and cleared Barber of any wrongdoing.
In December 2021, the Caledonia County State’s Attorney's office filed a “Brady letter” — which signals that an officer’s credibility has been called into question — against Barber. The letter states that Cochran’s investigation resulted in a department policy change but no disciplinary action.
After Cochran’s investigation, it was an officer who had left the Hardwick Police Department who brought the incident to the attention of the state’s attorney’s office, according to Upson. The office reached out to the town and asked it to conduct a review of Cochran’s investigation, which was then completed by the Williston Police Department.
That independent review found that Sgt. Barber appeared to be in violation of department and town policies, Upson confirmed. As a result, the Caledonia County State’s Attorney’s Office stopped accepting cases from Barber in January. Barber resigned the same month.
Hardwick then filed a complaint against Cochran with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which certifies law enforcement officers. Act 56 is a state law that requires agencies to file such complaints when they become aware of misconduct by a member of the police force, including a failure to conduct a valid investigation.
Cochran stated in a text message on Friday that he had not mismanaged the initial investigation and had acted consistent with the town’s policies and on the advice of the town’s attorneys. He is being represented by attorney Pietro Lynn.
On Jan. 10, the town placed Cochran on paid administrative leave, pending the council’s investigation. However, according to Upson, that investigation has yet to begin.
“We can’t even get the training council to initiate an investigation because they’re backlogged and don’t have the personnel to do it,” Upson told VTDigger in a June 13 interview.
Council deputy director Christopher Brickell said he could neither confirm nor deny if the town of Hardwick had filed a complaint, citing confidentiality requirements. He did note that the position that handles such investigations is currently vacant, so the council is relying on a contractor to conduct them.
Brickell pointed out that, in these types of situations, the council’s role is limited to determining whether a law enforcement officer should remain certified. He stressed that towns can conduct their own investigations to determine whether their employees have committed violations.
According to Upson, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns initially suggested Hardwick wait for the training council to conduct its investigation. However, after urging from Brickell and the passage of time, Upson said he went back to VLCT, which then directed him to make an agreement with another local department to look into Cochran’s handling of the initial investigation. The league declined to comment on the matter.
According to Upson, Hardwick requested that the Williston Police Department conduct that external review around May 18. Upson said he hopes it will be completed as soon as possible so that the town can bring the results to VLCT and make a decision about Cochran’s employment.
“It’s all just like crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s and making sure that we don’t do something that’s going to (cause) us heartache down the road,” Upson said. “Once you have a contract with an employee, you have to really do your due diligence to make sure that you’re not making the wrong moves.”
Upson said that the town is no longer waiting for a ruling from the council.
“That ship has sailed,” he said, noting the accumulating expense of paying two police chief salaries. The council “is not in a position that is going to work with our timeline.”
According to Cochran’s current contract, which runs through June 30, 2023, he is paid $72,072 per year. Interim Police Chief Henry — a retired Vermont State Police captain — is being paid $50 per hour, which totaled $54,302.50 from his hiring on January 18 through mid-June.
According to Upson, Hardwick is able to pay both chiefs through its current police department budget due to recent staff vacancies. Currently, the department employs eight officers, one of whom is in training at the Police Academy and five of whom are part-time.
Eric Remick, chair of the Hardwick Selectboard, said that all questions regarding Cochran were being directed to the town manager’s office.
“I can’t speak for everyone but, personally, I think this is just part of the process,” he said. “I guess we could be frustrated about it but, on the other hand, we have processes and procedures to follow so that we’re fair to everyone.”
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