Special Report: Pepperspray,
Pornography,
And Two Bad Apples

Under an ugly shadow:
The path to redemption for the Rutland City Police Department

by Elizabeth Hewitt

September 17, 2015

Andy Todd had been at the Rutland City Police Department for six years when he filed a formal written complaint with his command staff.

It was not spur-of-the-moment.

It came:

Six years after he first heard coworkers use racial slurs.

Four years from the time he saw an officer pocketing items during illegal vehicle stops.

Nine months after Todd heard officers laughing about African American Jamek Hart, who was pepperballed in his cell more than 20 times.

Four months since Todd witnessed a coworker slam a teenage African American face-first into the wall of a cell.

Finally, on Sept. 21, 2010, Todd filed a written complaint to his supervisors documenting his concerns about the alleged misconduct of fellow officers.

Five years later, Todd’s allegations of racial discrimination in the Rutland City Police Department are headed to court in January.

His lawsuit exposed a police culture that was rife with misconduct and aggressive racial bias during the time when Todd, who is black, served as an officer with the department from 2004 to 2011.

That culture, in which police openly discriminated against blacks, used excessive force, threatened other officers and had sex with informants on the job, has been kept a secret until now. Todd’s lawsuit brings to light internal reports, affidavits and depositions that detail alleged misconduct and a hostile work environment at the Rutland City Police Department.

The court case has sparked questions about whether the department has done enough to address racial bias and alleged officer misconduct.

Rutland City officials say the department has been fully reformed. Two officers who are fingered in Todd’s lawsuit have left, and the internal culture of the Rutland City Police Department has changed dramatically since the lawsuit was filed, they say.

But former officers and local residents say they are not so certain all that much has changed.

 

The Epicenter Of An Epidemic

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s state of the state address in January 2014 drew attention to the opiate addiction crisis in Vermont, and shortly afterward, a front-page story in the New York Times identified Rutland as the unofficial epicenter of Vermont’s heroin epidemic.

The publicity drew attention to an issue that wasn’t new to residents of this central Vermont city of 16,000. For more than a decade, the local newspaper, the Rutland Herald, has reported on drive-by shootings, drug possession charges, arrests of dealers and drug-related burglaries.

Local law enforcement has struggled with how best to apprehend drug dealers, many of whom are black and hail from the New York City area and Springfield, Massachusetts. Vermont enacted a bias-free policing law that required a few years ago, but studies show that racial profiling remains prevalent.

Police in Rutland have recently gone through a paradigm shift in the way officers address opiate and other drug addiction. Instead of solely cracking down on drug users, officers are now more focused on getting addicts into treatment and making naloxone available for people who’ve overdosed on drugs.

Dave Covell, a veteran officer who has served as interim chief of the Rutland City Police Department, said a majority of the calls police respond to now don’t involve crime. Covell, who joined the local police force three years ago after retiring from the Vermont State Police, said while opiate use continues to be a major challenge, officers are focused on fostering positive relationships with city residents and building connections with substance abuse and mental health treatment providers.

Covell says Andy Todd’s lawsuit alleging police misconduct and discrimination could impact the department’s efforts to build trust with the community.

Since Todd left the Rutland police four years ago, there has been a lot of turnover in the department, and the officers on the force Covell says “are good people and focused on doing their job.”

“I think some of them find it frustrating that with all the positive accomplishments that have been going on with the department and the community that some of the focus is on this,” Covell said.

While department officials want to push the past behind them, Andy Todd’s lawsuit and his willingness to bring public attention to internal reports and complaints about police misconduct and racial discrimination was a catalyst for the very reforms the city now touts.

Brutality and discrimination

Andy Todd graduated from the Vermont Police Academy in 2004 and became a full-time officer with the Rutland City Police Department. A tall, African-American man who came to Vermont from Massachusetts, Todd had recently married.

He was not at the department long before he heard fellow employees tell racial jokes and use ethnic slurs. In March of that year, his fellow officers laughed about a black man who was “Rodney King-ed” for resisting arrest, according to the affidavit.

Todd got into law enforcement because he wanted his professional life to be consistent with the values he cherished in his personal life.

“Honor, integrity, and courage are the most important to me and are the foundations of a law enforcement officer,” Todd wrote in the affidavit.

Officers who worked with Todd describe him as an upstanding member of the police department who was meticulous in his work and respectful in his interactions with the public.

Over the next seven years, Todd said he heard coworkers use the N-word and witnessed instances of racial profiling. In court documents, he says he was targeted by other officers for speaking out when he witnessed misconduct, discrimination and brutality.

Todd’s complaints focus on two Rutland Police Department employees — Sgt. John Johnson and Officer Earl “Frank” Post — whom he accuses of contributing to a hostile workplace environment that protected some and harmed others.

Beginning in 2006, Todd observed that Post pocketed items during allegedly illegal traffic stops, items that were later “passed around to RPD officers like appetizers at a social event.”

Todd writes that on many occasions he complained about or reported the misconduct of his fellow officers, but supervisors ignored his concerns. In video depositions, other department employees describe a “good ol’ boys club” atmosphere within the department.

“Post got away with stuff that most other people would have been called on the carpet for,” Chris Kiefer-Cioffi, a retired Rutland City officer, said in a deposition. “John Johnson couldn’t do anything wrong.”

The affidavit and depositions of other employees paint a picture of a department in which officers’ racial biases were allowed to seep into their policing.

Todd recalls that Johnson referred to the Amtrak train that runs to New York City as the “Soul Train.” According to the affidavit, Johnson would habitually crack down on black suspects while letting white people who had committed drug offenses go free.

Todd cites numerous cases of alleged brutality and discrimination, some of which led to lawsuits against the department — including an incident in 2010 when Jamek Hart was pepper-balled in a cell more than 20 times. The city later settled a lawsuit with Hart.

An independent investigation in early 2012 of the claims against Post and Johnson did not find criminal wrongdoing on the part of either man. However, the investigation conducted by Thomas Tremblay, the former head of the Vermont State Police, determined that Post and Johnson  engaged in racial profiling and other acts of misconduct.

Between 2009 and 2011, 87 percent of the people Johnson arrested on drug offenses were black — a far higher arrest rate of blacks than the 14 percent average for the rest of the department, according to a tally of Johnson’s records compiled by Tremblay.

Though the investigation states that the data alone “does not prove or disprove racial bias or racial profiling,” it goes on to say that “there is a preponderance of evidence” supporting violations of department policy in Johnson’s case.

According to Todd’s affidavit, it was common knowledge within the department that Post repeatedly had sex with a 19-year-old while on duty. When the woman’s mother came into the department to complain in June 2010, Post handled it, court documents allege. The responsibility for an internal investigation into the complaint was assigned to Johnson — who also allegedly had a sexual relationship with an unofficial informant, according to Todd’s court papers.

Todd claims that police leaders became increasingly hostile to him through the latter part of 2011. According to the affidavit, Lt. Kevin Geno, a department supervisor, was conducting a “rogue investigation” of Todd in retaliation for his complaints. Geno remains with the department.

When, in mid-December 2011, Post found a newspaper clipping in his work mailbox about a Burlington officer who was punished for racially motivated behavior, he became “red faced,” Tremblay wrote in his investigative report.

Standing in the parking lot venting loudly, Post pinned the newspaper clipping on Todd and told other officers that he would “assault the black son of a bitch” in retaliation, according to Tremblay’s investigation. Todd was not present at the time, but several days later, while on duty with another officer, he was told that Post threatened him.

That day, Todd phoned Mayor Christopher Louras and invited him on a ride-along.

Reforms Spurred By Complaints

Change came quickly after Todd opened up to Louras in his police car that day in December 2011.

Within 24 hours, Post and Johnson were put on administrative leave. Post would resign, and Johnson would retire four months later.

Tremblay, a law enforcement consultant, was asked a week later to conduct an internal affairs investigation into half a dozen allegations each against Post and Johnson — a process that would take three months to complete.

In late December, Todd took a job with the Vermont State Police as a detective in the Rutland Unit for Special Investigations.

Tony Bossi, the Rutland City Police, who led the department for more than 15 years, left the department in early January 2012.

Louras asked James Baker, a veteran of the Vermont State Police, to step in as interim chief of the department — a post he held for three years. Baker, who is a tall and imposing figure, had something of a reputation for cleaning up law enforcement departments; he had recently finished an 18-month stint heading the Vermont Police Academy after the institution was the subject of a child pornography probe.

When Baker took over as chief in January 2012, the department had a spotty record that extended well beyond Todd’s allegations against Post and Johnson.

That year the city settled the pepperball lawsuit, another discrimination case, filed by Mark Allen of New York, was pending, and a Rutland police officer was criminally charged for viewing porn at work.

Baker recalled in an interview with VTDigger that one of his first priorities when he arrived was to settle the suit with Allen, a black man from Brooklyn who was suing the city for discrimination after he was strip-searched during a traffic stop in 2011. The city agreed to settle in February 2012 for $30,000.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union released in 2014 found that in 2010 Rutland County far outstripped the rest of Vermont in terms of racial disparity for drug arrests. Black people were 16.8 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Rutland County, compared to the statewide average of 4.4 times, which by national standards was also high.

Baker was concerned about how officers’ biases were impacting their decisions on the job. But his worry was not solely about racial discrimination.

“The bias in the police department was more about those with a life of poverty than it was about race or ethnicity,” he said

To help officers understand how their attitude toward blacks and poor people affected their job performance, Baker brought in Curtiss Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Reed led a series of training workshops on fair and impartial policing.

Reed praised the steps Baker took to change the culture of the Rutland City Police Department.

“You can’t do it just one person at a time,” Reed said. “You have to do it as a group, as a culture.”

In a daylong training with Rutland officers, Reed led what he called a “no-holds barred” discussion about how biases manifest in police work. The sessions are highly interactive, Reed said, and they “ask people to leave their political correctness at the door.”

Meanwhile, Baker held open meetings to talk with residents about the role of local police in the community. He began using data to inform the department’s approach to policing, and he sent officers to neighborhoods for what he called “park, walk and talks” — a strategy designed to encourage police to get to know residents.

Baker also hired new people to fill vacant positions, kicking off a period of significant turnover. All in all, about half of the 40 sworn officers now with the force joined the department since 2012.

In an effort to root out police misconduct, Baker orchestrated a restructuring of the department with the aim of increasing accountability.

“It was the systematic failure of the system inside the police department that allowed the conduct to go on,” Baker said.

Reed, who has worked with law enforcement around the state, is confident not only that Baker’s program of change was effective; the changes that Baker implemented made the department one of the best in the state, he says.

“This is an entirely different Rutland than it was four or five years ago,” Reed said.

Racial Profiling A Problem Statewide

Rutland is not the only Vermont municipality to contend with allegations of racial discrimination and misconduct by local law enforcement.

The same ACLU study that found Rutland County to be far above the statewide rate of disparities in marijuana arrests found that Vermont as a whole is out of line with the national average.

Between 2000 and 2010, blacks were 4.4 times more like to be arrested for possessing pot than whites, compared to a nationwide rate of 3.73.

An analysis of traffic stops by the Vermont State Police, published in October 2014 by a research team that included University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino, found that there are racial disparities in police searches and arrests.

According to data collected between July 2010 and June 2011, black drivers were 62 percent more likely to be arrested after a stop than white drivers, and they were nearly two and a half times more likely than white drivers to be searched.

The stats show an even higher disparity for Hispanic drivers, who are 84 percent more likely to be arrested than whites and five times more likely to be searched than white drivers.

Tracking discrimination in law enforcement is not just about pointing the finger at police, Seguino said in an interview in September. It also is a window into disparities in other parts of society, she said.

“The police aren’t separate from us,” Seguino said. “What we see there is paralleled in housing, it’s paralleled in access to jobs.”

Other Vermont municipalities have been sued for alleged biased policing or police misconduct.

A case brought by Wayne Burwell, of Hartford, is currently pending trial in U.S. District Court in Burlington. Burwell is suing the town and the local police department for excessive force during a 2010 incident.

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is pursuing a lawsuit against the State Police on behalf of Greg Zullo of Rutland. The civil liberties group claims that police did not have grounds to pull over Zullo, who is black, in a 2014 traffic stop. Police subsequently impounded Zullo’s car for several months.

Difficult Reforms

Sgt. Greg Sheldon joined the police department a decade and a half ago. In his view, the department has changed dramatically in recent years. Sheldon declined to speak about Todd’s allegations, but in the affidavit, he is identified as the colleague who alerted Todd to the threats Post made against him in December 2011.

Sheldon said the department’s relationship with Rutland residents has improved over the past three or four years as the culture of the department has become more positive. Sheldon says the officers in the department are “very good people” and “it’s a different place.”

“One bad officer poisons the well,” Sheldon said.

The Rutland City Police Department is among the best trained forces in impartial policing tactics, he said, in large part because officers are receptive to new techniques. “To go about your duties in law enforcement based on race, gender, sexuality it’s very unproductive,” he said.

One veteran of the department says he finds it hard to believe that old-timers who remain on the force and who once played a role in perpetrating discriminatory practices have changed.

Mike Warfle, a three decade veteran of the department, left in 2013 following a disagreement over pay. Warfle, who is now the Pittsford police chief, questions the effectiveness of many of the reforms Baker implemented.

It’s “smoke and mirrors,” Warfle said in a recent phone interview.

Warfle says the effectiveness of the reforms comes down to whether higher-ups on the force have been held accountable.

Two members of the department who are cited in Todd’s lawsuit remain in high-ranking positions on the Rutland police force: Lt. Kevin Geno, who is a supervisor, and Cpt. Scott Tucker, who now heads Project VISION, a program that encourages collaboration between the community and law enforcement. Both men failed to respond to complaints made by Todd.

Geno launched a retaliatory investigation of Todd in the fall of 2011, according to Todd’s affidavit. Tucker was aware of the complaints Todd made about Post and Johnson, but did not address them, according to the lawsuit.

So long as officers in powerful positions remain in place, the culture of the department won’t change, Warfle said.

“In my opinion, the management was no different because you still had the same two underlings,” he said.

Baker disputes that assessment: He says his mission as chief was to move the department forward.

Baker says he made a “tactical business decision” to start with a blank slate when he came on board in January 2012 because so many employees had violated department rules in some way prior to his tenure.

“If we spent our entire time settling up scores prior to Jan. 6 the city would not look the way it does now and the police department would not look the way it does now,” Baker said.

Baker did not discipline Geno, for example, because the lieutenant “did nothing during my tenure for me to take any type of action against him.”

Ted Washburn left the department in 2013 after five years and took a job with the Rutland Town Police Department, enticed in part by the benefits package and the hours, but also because he was discouraged by the workplace culture of the city police station.

Under Baker’s leadership, he said, there was little camaraderie. High staff turnover and publicity about internal affairs at the department contributed to low morale.

“Everybody just wanted to do their 12-hour shift and go home,” Washburn said.

Washburn said Baker wasn’t looking out for officers in the department and “pretty much publicly shamed them.” That experience bruised the whole team at the department, he said, making employees feel more isolated and on edge.

Two long-time officers left the department amid conflict with Baker’s administration — Mike Warfle, the Pittsford police chief, and officer Tom Fuller, who retired in September 2013 after he spent 10 months on administrative leave for his involvement in an altercation at a local medical center. The incident was investigated by the Vermont Attorney Generals office and no charges were brought.

Fuller, now a contractor, said he initially was impressed when Baker joined the department, but later felt he was selective about complaint investigations. Fuller says he was targeted by Baker for coming forward with concerns about other officers’ conduct.

“Instead of addressing the problems people brought to his attention, he went after people who were bringing the problems to light,” Fuller said.

Larry Jensen, who heads the police commission, credits Baker with improving the collegiality of the Rutland City Police Department through an effort to unify the police force around the same values.

“I think people have a better sense of a common set of goals and a common set of values in terms of how we behave,” Jensen said. “And I think there’s a much better sense of buy-in than when we started.”

Jensen has not familiarized himself with the facts laid out in Tremblay’s investigation of Andy Todd’s allegations. When the report was completed, the city attorney told officials it was a confidential personnel matter.

Legislation passed in 2013 and a court decision in a case filed by the Rutland Herald against the city changed that policy, according to Mayor Louras. Citizens, including members of the police commission, were eventually allowed access to a redacted version of the report.

Jensen, however, said he didn’t feel it was necessary to read it.

“By the time it was available I was satisfied that Chief Baker had taken care of the issues raised in the report,” Jensen said.

Sharon Davis, a longtime member of the board of alders, said city government has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the city from potential lawsuits. Issues raised by Todd’s lawsuit about alleged police misconduct have been handled solely by the city’s police commission, and Davis questions whether the city kept the board properly informed about the Tremblay investigation. She maintains the internal affairs report could lead to litigation.

“The only people that can settle a lawsuit in this city is the board of aldermen,” Davis said. “So why weren’t we kept up to speed?”

Meanwhile, Baker, who left the department in January this year and now works with the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington, D.C., says that if he could have released the report to the public, he would have.

“If I could have, I would have released the Johnson and Post investigation, if the law was the law at the time,” Baker said. “But it wasn’t the law at the time.”

Baker told VTDigger that although he did not release the report, he did keep the city’s police commission informed of the investigation.

Retired officer John Sly says over the course of 34 years at the Rutland City Police Department, he saw many chiefs come and go. Each one came in with new ideas, Sly said, but implementation was contingent on support from personnel.

“You can have a change at the top, but if the changes don’t go down through the command staff, it’s not necessarily going to change things,” Sly said.

Sly, who retired nearly a year and a half ago, said members of the department are making an effort to put the past behind them. “I believe every day the Rutland City Police Department continues to learn from past events and continues to grow,” Sly said. “They are doing their very, very best to make sure that past mistakes are learned from and not duplicated.”

Attorney General Bill Sorrell told VTDigger that his understanding is that RPD is “a much better department now than it was in the past.”

His office has checked in with the Rutland County State’s Attorney and municipal leaders about the status of the department in light of the accusations in Todd’s lawsuit.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that changes there at the Rutland Police Department are for the better and the alleged sins of the past are past,” Sorrell said.

The Next Chapter

Andy Todd’s lawsuit is on schedule to go to trial early next year. In the meantime, changes are still coming quickly at the Rutland City Police Department.

Last month, the city announced that Brian Kilcullen, currently chief in Schenectady, N.Y., will take over the department. Louras, the city’s mayor, is confident that Kilcullen will be a good leader and will be committed to data-driven, fair policing tactics in Rutland. He expects Kilcullen to begin the job in November.

Reached by phone this week, Kilcullen said he expects to continue some of the programs Baker started. When asked what internal issues the department is contending with today, Kilcullen said he is still in the process of learning about the local police force.

“For the most part, what I know about the department has been from the outside,” Kilcullen said. Kilcullen says he plans to sit down with veterans of the department to talk about how discriminatory practices and misconduct have been addressed.

Rutland City is one of 26 municipalities across the country, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, participating the White House Data Initiative — a program that aims to increase transparency about policing through public data.

Rutland’s first datasets, on the use of force and community engagement, went live in late September. One data set detail times, dates and participants in community meetings; the other set chronicles uses of force by officers, ranging from displaying a weapon or taser to tackling a suspect when they fled.

Along with many other officials in Rutland, Mayor Christopher Louras worries that the recent wave of publicity of Todd’s case has confused the public.

The conduct outlined in the case happened years ago, he said, and he is confident that the department’s troubled history is behind them.

“As disturbing, distasteful, egregious — pick your proper metaphor — as the actions and allegations are and were, they don’t represent either the department or the community in 2015,” Louras said.

Meanwhile, Curtiss Reed says that in his experience, it isn’t possible for the culture of a workplace to change overnight. It can take about a decade, he said.

“You’re not going to see rapid results in a year or two years,” Reed said.

But Reed views the Rutland City Police Department as a success and believes that the department is on track for a long-term cultural shift.

“We can’t just check the boxes and say ‘Oh, I’m free of bias,’” Reed said. “It’s a commitment to that ongoing personal development that is required.”

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5 Comments on "Special Report: Pepperspray,
Pornography,
And Two Bad Apples

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Wendy Wilton
1 year 3 months ago
Thankfully, this ugly history is behind us in Rutland. Mayor Louras, Jim Baker, the police commission, and the community has done a great job in turning around a difficult situation and setting the city on a better course. The majority of the police officers now are new employees, younger and more diverse than the previous force. At the same time the internal issue were occurring in the police department the city had to address increasing substance abuse–a difficult task. Other communities are now looking to Rutland for answers to these challenges to which no community is immune. If the state’s… Read more »
Thomas J LaFond
1 year 3 months ago
As one who was born and lived in Rutland for my entire life and worked for Rutland City Police for 22 yrs, I agree with those who say the problems expressed would not have existed if the commanders were held accountable, . Time and again I saw deals cut and people allowed to “skate” off from misdeeds Chief Baker allowing people to remain in the dept and in command positions after being aware of misconduct,, did nothing to help the dept, Lt Geno case is one,, Sgt Tarbell another for viewing porn , to no small amount,, but these two… Read more »
Jamie Carter
1 year 3 months ago

This format is really difficult to look at, especially the Digger logo that is in the way of the actual type.

I got halfway through it and was interested in the story but had to give up due to the formatting. Maybe I’ll try and finish it a little at a time over the next few days. In the future please stop using this terrible format Digger. No one likes it.

Neil Johnson
1 year 3 months ago
Can’t read most of the article, it’s garbled, tough to see, too bad what I could was informative. It would be interesting to know some other statistics. What was the ratio to stops vs. crime convictions, you could break this out by any demographic you choose. It’s a known fact drug dealers are coming up on trains and busses. There is a real problem. A property, huge inn no less, was stripped of copper, between going under contract, and closing. All sorts of gang references, it was a multi day undertaking. Minimum half million in damages for what $10k in… Read more »
David Wright
1 year 3 months ago

What’s going on with the strange layout of the “Special Report” articles?

They are awkward to read and the text overlaps the graphics in some places.

Is this idiotic long scroll format supposed to add Talmudic gravity to the subject matter?

Could we at least have a button that allows us skeptics to view them in “classic formatting”?

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