The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?
You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?
You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.
It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.
(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)
Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”
Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.
I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.
Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.
This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?
Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.
How many communities have police chiefs wedded to outdated models of policing and feel no reason to change their ways — indeed, actively resist change, as Merkel has apparently done — and hold outsized positions of power in their cities and towns?
I can think of at least two examples. I’ll bet you a shiny silver dollar there are lots more.
There’s a striking parallel case in the city of Bennington, where we find policing revanchist Chief Paul Doucette. There’s a ton of evidence that his department engages in racial profiling, and is unapologetic about it. Just ask any Black person who lives there, or has had the misfortune to end up there.
Doucette, like Merkel, basically flips the bird to anyone who dares question his tactics. And like Merkel, he has the backing of the city manager. Unlike Merkel, he enjoys the silent consent of the city council and local political leadership. (Merkel has the active support of some leaders and the disdain of others.) Have you ever heard Senate Judiciary chair Dick Sears, vaunted crusader for justice, ever say boo about Chief Doucette?
Nah. What you do hear from local leaders is a lot of bemoaning of the city’s tarnished reputation, but no apparent desire to tackle the real problems. And just as I have heard nothing from Bennington’s legislative delegation, if any Addison County lawmaker has spoken up about the Vergennes mess, I must have missed it. Paging Matt Birong, Diane Lanpher, Chris Bray, Ruth Hardy; is anyone there?
And now, the cherry on this shit sundae, our state’s top legal eagle, Attorney General TJ Donovan, has washed his hands of justice problems in both communities — leaving Merkel to basically grab his balls and dare anyone to cross him, ever again.
And lest anyone try to get away with claiming that both cities are complete outliers, let’s remember the 2014 scandal in Colchester. Turned out that Tyler Kinney, a 12-year veteran of the force who was the sole keeper of the CPD’s evidence storage, had been pilfering guns and drugs and doing all sorts of outlandish stuff.
The year before the scandal broke, 34-year veteran CPD chief Chuck Kirker retired. Kinney had been given charge over the department’s evidence locker under Kirker’s watch, and Kinney’s obvious-in-retrospective crime spree began while Kirker was chief.
Well, at least Kirker was simply negligent, unlike the actively malignant Doucette and Merkel.
But the point is, how many city and town police forces are creatures of inertia — because of excessive tenure or the approval (tacit or otherwise) of community leaders, or because there really isn’t an effective system of checks and balances at any level?
As our Attorney General just illustrated once again.
(And lest you think that we’ve just had a run of bad luck, I refer you to a 2011 piece in Seven Days entitled “Bad Cops,” which details a whole series of police misconduct cases and the lame-ass official response to them. It includes a star turn from James Baker, who’s now shocked and appalled at the state of things in the Department of Corrections. In 2010 he was called in to play Mr. Fixit at the Vermont Police Academy, which he found in a state of “chaos and turmoil.” Frying pan slash fire, eh, Jim?)
Now, if something as radical as defunding the police is beyond the pale in this, ahem, “progressive” state, Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault has some ideas that might actually pass muster.
In an opinion piece in this weekend’s Times Argus, Thibault advocates the creation of:
…an independent Office of the Inspector General for law enforcement activities to provide oversight of all law enforcement agencies in the state of Vermont. This would include a duty to collect and administer statewide data on alleged and substantiated misconduct, as well as matters that were addressed at a supervisor level and not resulting in formal disciplinary action – critical in abating poor performing personnel moving from one department to another without repercussion.
Among his other ideas are regionalized internal affairs units, so police discipline is taken out of the hands of local officials, and an anonymous tip line and whistleblower protections for those seeking to report police misconduct.
It’s better than nothing; it’d create some independent oversight of police agencies that seemingly have none whatsoever. Unfortunately, I doubt that our “progressive” Legislature would go along with any of this. Most lawmakers, and their leadership, are habitually deferent to the law enforcement community. Anyone with a badge and a uniform gets pride of place in Statehouse discussions.
Besides, there’s this general belief that Vermont is special, that we don’t have these kinds of problems, that we don’t need the kinds of checks and balances that other jurisdictions need.
In reality, though, I wonder how many George Merkels and Paul Doucettes and Chuck Kirkers we have out there. Three is too many, but I suspect that there are similar critters hiding under rocks that have yet to be turned over.
There’s no way of telling, anyway. The system, as it is now, enables the Merkels of the world. And I hope that, given as much lip service as we’ve gotten over Black Lives Matter, we’ll get some action as well.