Public Safety

Letter calls for removal of Northfield police chief alleging discriminatory behavior

Police Chief John Helfant. Photo courtesy of Northfield Police Dept.

A group of progressive organizations and other individuals have filed a letter with the town of Northfield calling for the removal of Police Chief John Helfant, arguing he is unfit to serve because of “hostile” behavior to marginalized communities. 

“It is inexcusable that the highest ranking member of Northfield’s police force has made our communities less safe by repeatedly deviating from what is acceptable conduct for a law enforcement officer,” the letter states. “Whether or not Chief Helfant takes further hostile action against the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and educator communities, we do not have confidence in his ability to do his job free from discrimination and legal prevarication.”

First reported by the Times Argus, the letter is signed by eight organizations — Outright Vermont, Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network, Northfield Middle High School’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance, Rights & Democracy of Vermont, two church groups — and “concerned parents, educators and students of the town.”

In an email to VTDigger, Helfant disputed the letter’s characterizations and indicated he plans to remain as chief. 

“The allegations against me are false and I have no intention of resigning,” he wrote. “I am eligible to leave service and collect from the Vermont Municipal Retirement System on May 1, 2023 and intend on being at Northfield PD until at least that date.”

Helfant, who is the parent of three students in the Orange Southwest School District, has made headlines for his posts on Front Porch Forum targeting the school superintendent and a state law allowing students to use the locker room that matches their gender identity. The posts stemmed from a firestorm that ensued after a Randolph Union High School volleyball player objected to her transgender teammate’s use of the school locker room.

Helfant also took issue with being barred from coaching the high school’s girls soccer team, alleging the decision was retaliation for publicly opposing the use of a girls locker room by a transgender student there. He has also voiced his support for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group suing Orange Southwest.

The letter, titled “Northfield Needs a New Chief of Police,” references Helfant’s public comments related to transgender students’ use of locker rooms, as well as a Brady/Giglio letter questioning his credibility as a law enforcement officer. Town officials disputed the letter and an investigation by the Vermont Attorney General was subsequently dropped due to “insufficient” evidence to support a criminal charge.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said he understands the doubts about Helfant’s “commitment to bias free policing and concerns about his leadership.” 

Thibault issued the Brady letter in 2019 and updated it in November 2020, stating that Helfant had been “untruthful in an affidavit of probable cause and search warrant application” from a drug case Helfant had investigated while working for the Berlin Police Department.

“Vermonters expect law enforcement leadership and officers who share their values,” Thibault said in an email. “Chief Helfant’s very public advocacy on the Black Lives Matter flag and rights of transgender students within Randolph Union High School has clearly impacted perceptions in the community he serves.”

Thibault is also concerned, he wrote, about the “increasing reluctance of other law enforcement agencies to involve themselves in situations where Chief Helfant is on-scene.”

Some law enforcement officials have expressed concern that Helfant’s involvement could compromise cases, particularly when he is present for the execution of search warrants, Thibault explained.

The letter was sent on Jan. 12. Northfield Town Manager Jeff Schulz confirmed the town has received it.

“It’s a personnel matter and, like all municipalities, those are not something that is discussed in public,” he said, declining further comment.

He confirmed that Helfant remains chief, has been in the position for four years and draws a salary of about $86,000.

Schulz said the town has received other complaints and letters about Helfant but declined to share them without a formal records request, which VTDigger has filed.

Helfant, in his written statement, refuted each of the allegations. “I have never taken any ‘hostile action’ towards anyone in the LGBTQ community,” he wrote in the four-page statement. He wrote that one of the greatest things about America is that everyone has “the freedom to be who you are or who you choose to be in your life.”

Helfant’s statement ends with the line: “That said we need to talk about the locker room issue from both sides and find a way to move forward. To do that we need to exercise our free speech rights without attempts to cancel that discussion.”

Co-signers of the letter to the town said they see Helfant’s behavior as targeted hate toward marginalized groups in Vermont.

“I believe that we have a moral imperative to push back,” said Rev. Julie Lombard from the United Church of Northfield. “We’re just saying that if you live in a town you should feel safe around your police chief.”

While she has not had “any negative personal connection” with Helfant or the police department, she said she knows of people who have and said implicit bias within its ranks must be addressed.

In a predominantly white town that imports its diversity from Norwich University, it is important to create a safe and culture of equal treatment for everyone, she said. 

Given that people share bathrooms at home, “Why is somebody who has sworn to serve and protect our public choosing when to and when not to follow a law in the state of Vermont? That’s concerning,” she said. 

Rev. Lynn Bujnak, conference minister for the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ, said the letter was an opportunity to impress a phrase parishioners use often: a just world for all.

“Having someone who appears to be both racist and homophobic in that kind of a leadership position is beyond problematic,” she said. “That’s simply not acceptable.”

It was important, she said, for a church that is welcoming to all to “be part of the witness that says this is not who Vermont is. And for us, it’s also not who we believe God wants us to be.”

Rights & Democracy signed on because of its ongoing work promoting equity in education in the Orange Southwest School District, according to Mia Schultz, an organizer.

“Helfant has been vocal in promoting the type of hate and transphobia that we are seeing spread in Randolph and that is directly harming children and undermining the work to create safe and inclusive schools,” Schultz wrote in an emailed statement. “We see his presence in Northfield as part of a whole ecosystem of hate targeted at our most vulnerable populations.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the story misidentified Rev. Lynn Bujnak's title.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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