Here in Vermont, we don’t have to worry so much about the kind of over-the-top police violence we’ve seen at social-justice protests around the country. But that doesn’t mean we are free of culture issues in law enforcement agencies beyond the persistent racial disparities in traffic stops, searches, arrests and imprisonment.
In fact, we’ve had a series of recent incidents that point out the potential danger of toxic cop culture. The most egregious case was in Barre Town, where a part-time Berlin police officer killed his ex-girlfriend and then himself — while on duty.
(This is the story badly booted by VTDigger, which reported that Officer Jeffrey Strock “had been trying to ‘rekindle’ his relationship.” Yeah, rekindle with gunpowder. Digger’s original story was even worse; it didn’t have the air quotes around “rekindle.” The quotes were added in an attempt to, ahem, *fix* the problem after the story got a bunch of complaints on social media for framing a domestic-violence fatality so cavalierly.)
Similar case without the fatal conclusion involved a Burlington officer who entered his ex-girlfriend’s home in Swanton without permission. The break-in by Officer William Drinkwine allegedly occurred in July; he was taken off duty immediately and top city officials were informed, but nothing was said publicly until charges were brought last week.
But the grand prize goes to the Rutland Police Department, which appears to have a major quality control issue on its hands.
This month alone, VTDigger’s Alan Keays has broken three separate stories about personnel trouble in the Rutland PD. That’s kind of a lot.
First, an attempted murder case was dropped by prosecutors due to misconduct by a Rutland police detective. State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said she would withdraw Detective Emilio Rosario’s designation as a death scene officer, which would restrict his ability to handle the most serious cases.
Next, Kennedy is having doubts about another Rutland detective, Jimmy Plakas. Police chief Brian Kilcullen had proposed granting Plakas death scene officer status, but Kennedy isn’t convinced. Two years ago, Plakas gave a crucially incomplete account of a fellow officer’s physical takedown of a prisoner inside a holding cell. (Plakas had reported the prisoner was not handcuffed at the time, which, well, turns out he was. Kind of a big deal.)
Finally, a DUI case against a Vermont state trooper was dismissed following misconduct by two Rutland officers — one of whom was the trooper’s girlfriend. The case arose out of a January traffic stop in the city. The dismissal came after “contradictions, conflicts and apparent ‘deferential’ treatment for the trooper” by the two city officers.
That’s four officers involved in questionable conduct in a department with only 37 officers.
Chief Kilcullen is, by and large, standing by his people. The trooper’s girlfriend left the force earlier this year for reasons, according to the chief, unrelated to the bungled DUI. The two detectives and the other officer are still on the job. Regarding the detectives, Kilcullen characterizes their offenses as “mistakes” rather than negligence or deliberate misbehavior. And he hopes that both will achieve the death scene officer designation.
This is the usual kneejerk reaction by top cops, and it’s a reflection of an unhealthy internal culture common in law enforcement. Cops identify very strongly with each other, and tend to band together when challenged. Police chiefs, especially in smaller agencies, are understandably very close to their officers.
That can be a healthy thing. It can also provide unwarranted cover for offending cops and prevent the removal of what police defenders like to call “bad apples.” You know, the handful of cops who give them all a bad reputation.
And who spoil the bushel if not removed.
It’s true that a lot of police officers are public servants who want the best for their communities. But law enforcement is in such a position of power, that offenses must be quickly dealt with. And those who prove unworthy of the badge need to be weeded out.
Look at the horrific power imbalance in the cases of the Burlington and Berlin officers who preyed on ex-girlfriends. Women in abusive relationships with men in positions of power often have no recourse. Strock’s victim told her landlord to alert her if Strock was nosing around. But do you think she reported him to police, who she’d rightly suspect of lacking impartiality in dealing with a fellow cop? Strock had served on the Berlin force for 17 years. That’s long enough to achieve full acceptance in the brotherhood of the blue.
By necessity, standards need to be high for police officers. Cases of misconduct need to be handled fully and transparently. Such is usually not the case, even in our rural Green Mountain paradise.