Northfield’s Leaders Pull a Doomed Political Power Play

The town of Northfield has a problem. Its police chief, John Helfant, has been dinged by Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault over questions about the chief’s reliability. Thibault has issued a so-called “scarlet letter” branding Helfant as untrustworthy. This will make it difficult for Helfant to be a witness in court cases, and may limit his ability to investigate crimes. Which is kind of a big deal for a small town with a small police force.

Northfield’s response: Line up behind the chief and appeal to Gov. Phil Scott to intervene.

Which he has no statutory authority to do. Thibault has complete discretion in such matters.

It’s ridiculous. And it shows the extent to which local officials will stand behind their police chief, come hell or high water.

We’ve seen this same dynamic at work in Bennington and Vergennes, just to name two. The police chief in a small community occupies a position of great authority and political influence. Elected officials are either victims of Patty Hearst Syndrome, believing in their chief despite all evidence, or they are simply afraid to cross their chief. Either alternative begs the question, Who watches the watchers? Who, if anyone, has the chops to ride herd on a police chief — and boot them out if need be?

The answer, more often than not, seems to be “Nobody.”

Helfant insists that Thibault’s concerns are groundless. The Selectboard agrees. Selectman Charlie Morse said Thibault’s letter was “an unfair action,” and added:

“I get the feeling that the state’s attorney is imposing this letter that essentially assassinates the chief of police because there is bad blood between him and the chief of police.”

Helfant’s lawyer, Defense Attorney To Just About Everybody David Sleigh, characterized Thibault as conducting a “vendetta” against Helfant.

Again, it’s ridiculous. Thibault is a respected figure. He has no history, as far as I know, of going Medieval on anyone who operates in the county’s criminal justice ecosystem. Besides, as a matter of practicality, prosecutors try to avoid conflict with law enforcement. It can create big problems on both sides. State’s Attorneys have to run for election, and don’t need to make influential enemies.

Not knowing anything more about the situation, I can tell you one thing. I’d believe Thibault a lot sooner than I’d believe Morse or Sleigh or Helfant, each of whom have a decided interest in the case.

Let’s hope the governor is smart enough to stay out of this rat’s nest. And let’s maybe think about instituting some sort of mechanism for evaluating, reviewing, and when necessary removing, a police chief.

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