The aggravating case of John Grismore may be an outlier, but it’s only one of many problems and scandals involving county sheriffs. So much so, that it makes you wonder if the office itself is worth all the trouble.
Grismore is the sheriff-elect of Franklin County, a fact only explicable by the fact that most voters have no idea what they’re doing when they choose a sheriff. Or side judge, for that matter.
Grismore has had quite the year. He was a captain in the FCSD who won the endorsement of outgoing sheriff Roger Langevin. That was enough to scare off any other potential candidates. Then, two days before the primary election, he was caught on security camera kicking a suspect in custody multiple times (in the groin at least twice) while the man was shackled to a bench.
Then, before the assault became public knowledge, Grismore won the Republican and Democratic primaries. Nine days after the primary, Langevin announced that Grismore had been fired, and also rescinded his endorsement. The leaders of both county party committees said they considered Grismore unfit to serve.
Even after all that, Grismore won the November election against two write-in candidates. Now, Franklin County lawmakers are considering impeachment, but that seems unlikely because it’s a time-consuming process and many lawmakers don’t like going out on a limb. So this guy will apparently be sheriff for four long years despite the fact that the county state’s attorney is preparing a Brady letter branding Grismore as an unreliable witness.
Senator-elect Robert Norris, himself a former Franklin County sheriff, said “I’d like to think that [the voters] knew the circumstances surrounding everything.”
Of course he’d like to think so, because he was a beneficiary of the system. But it’s simply not true. I could be the poster child for the informed voter, but I sure don’t know beans about candidates for sheriff. (Or side judge, for that matter.) Even if I tried to educate myself, how would I determine the effectiveness of an incumbent sheriff or the qualifications of other candidates?
There’s proof of how little thought the voters put into this office. First is the amount of questionable behavior among sheriffs. Second is the extreme longevity enjoyed by many a sheriff, thanks to the voters’ built-in bias toward incumbency in low-profile contests.
On the first point, let’s review the publicly revealed shortcomings of our distinguished sheriffs. In June of this year, Addison County’s Peter Newton was charged with sexually assaulting a woman who’d approached his department for protection from an abusive husband. Doesn’t get much slimier than that.
In a court hearing, Newton’s ex-wife, his daughter, and a deputy testified that they believed Newton was a threat to others and to himself. He eventually withdrew his bid for re-election, but resisted calls for his immediate resignation. Calls from Gov. Phil Scott and a bunch of Addison County lawmakers.
Let’s now head south to Bennington County, where Sheriff Chad Schmidt adopted a Wizard of Oz approach to his duties, rarely if ever showing his face in public after he and his wife bought a piece of land in Tennessee in July of 2020. He acknowledged that his family lives there but insisted he was maintaining a grip on his responsibilities. Still, VTDigger reported that “His agency’s key partners haven’t seen him in person since the spring of 2020,” and “Schmidt’s most recent photograph to appear in local media was taken in February 2019, when he was sworn in for his third elected term as sheriff.”
After all of that, it was mighty white of him to bow out of a bid for re-election. Presumably we’ll be seeing even less of him in the future, if such a thing is possible.
Up to Caledonia, where longtime incumbent Dean Shatley bowed out of a re-election bid after one of his deputies faced “allegations that, in exchange for sexual favors, he paid money or promised legal help to vulnerable women he encountered as an officer.” Shatney suspended the deputy but refused to terminate him, which triggered community protests outside his headquarters.
Over to Orange County, where perpetual incumbent Bill Bohnyak apparently lost his bid for re-election by a narrow margin pending a recount. Possibly he took the election for granted, having served since 2006. Meanwhile, he faces a potential reprimand for allowing a deputy who lacked the proper certification to handle some very sensitive cases, including sexual assault and sexual assault against a child. Kinda makes you wonder what other corners he’s cut over the years.
That’s five sheriffs out of 14 with clouds above their heads. Not a great track record.
Perpetual incumbency tends to make people think they’re untouchable and irreplaceable. And our sheriffs are heavy on perpetual incumbency. Chittenden County Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin is retiring after thirty-six years in office. When he became sheriff in 1987 he succeeded his father Earl, who’d been sheriff since 1955. That’s a combined sixty-eight years in the family.
Back in 2014 Ed Caffrey ran against McLaughlin, saying that “…it doesn’t seem like Kevin McLaughlin is very engaged in his job.” McLaughlin and his allies denied it, but he also struggled “to identify concrete achievements.” Either the voters didn’t mind or they didn’t pay attention, because they’ve twice returned him to office since then.
Other tales of endless incumbency: Lamoille County’s Roger Marcoux has been in office since 2001. Grand Isle’s Ray Allen has served since 2011, but he succeeded his late wife, who’d held the post since 2002. Windsor’s D. Michael Chamberlain was just defeated for re-election after serving since 1998. He’d been accused by the man who beat him, Ryan Palmer, of “policing for profit.” Sheriffs make a lot of their budgets by accepting contracts for police work. Some of that is legitimate, but some amounts to profiteering in the guise of law enforcement. One of Chamberlain’s biggest contracts was with the town of Bridgewater. His deputies mostly did traffic enforcement, and in 2018 more speeding tickets were written in Bridgewater than in any other community in Vermont.
As Vermont Public noted at the time, “Of all the traffic tickets written in Vermont in 2018, 12 percent were issued in Bridgewater.” The town’s population is nine hundred and three. To put it plainly, Chamberlain has operated a speed trap in Bridgewater for the financial benefit of his department and the town.
Two longtime incumbents retired in 2020. Stephen Benard had been Rutland County Sheriff since 2004, and Kirk Martin had served Orleans County since 2011. Shatney is about to bow out after being sheriff since 2011.
Another thing to consider: When a sheriff is replaced, the successor usually rises from within the department. Promoting from within can be a good thing, but there needs to be a balance between hiring inside and going outside. There is little to no balance in replacement of sheriffs. At a time when policing is going through major changes, is the average inbred sheriff’s office keeping up with the times?
There’s one other problem with long tenure and promotion from within: Our sheriffs are not exactly a diverse lot. All 14 are white, and 13 are white men. The only woman is Jennifer Harlow in Orleans County, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott in 2020 to succeed Martin.
The office of county sheriff is a brackish pool in our state’s law enforcement waterway. Sheriffs are largely answerable only to themselves, since most voters pay little attention and only extreme misconduct results in state action or newspaper exposés. The departments’ reliance on contract work is an open door for abuse.
It says here that the entire institution is a relic of a bygone age. If we were reinventing law enforcement from scratch, I doubt very much that we’d come up with sheriffs as part of the system.
Here in Vermont, we’re rotten at reinventing systems because we love the familiar, the tried and (allegedly) true. Do I seriously think we’ll ever take a fresh look at sheriffs? No, I don’t. Do I think we should?
That’s a hard yes.