I Don’t Know What This Is, But It’s Not “Fantastic”

The political leaders of St. Albans have reacted enthusiastically to a report from the city police department indicating that there were 15 internal investigations of SAPD staff in the year 2022.

That’s 15 investigations in a department with 18 staffers. You do the math.

I have a hard time being “impressed” by that (Alderperson Marie Bessette), or viewing it as “fantastic” (a member of the city’s Police Advisory Board). They are taking the report as a sign the department is unafraid to ride herd on itself. Sure, but I think it’s more like getting a fence around a toxic waste pit and starting the cleanup. I mean, if the SAPD is averaging almost one internal investigation a year per employee (which they did in the previous two years as well), there’s clearly a lot of work left to do.

VTDigger has a lengthy piece giving as much detail on the investigations as the city will release, which isn’t much. It’s still worth reading.

This is one more sign of a big problem with oversight of city and town police agencies. Civic leaders and top cops are often in codependent relationships (See also: Weinberger, Miro). I think it’s safe to say the police chief is the most influential figure in a city or town government. Not necessarily the most powerful, but the most influential. You see it in town after town: Even when a police chief or department alienates the public and stains the community’s reputation, civilian leaders are eager to close ranks with them.

A few examples: Bennington, where Chief Paul Doucette has the full support of the city manager and council despite his charges’ history of racial bias in traffic stops and “a warrior mentality” that has destroyed trust between cops and community.

And Vergennes, where city officials resolutely whistled and looked the other way as Chief George Merkel complied quite the rap sheet, including allegedly signing official documents with “patently false information,” knowingly failing to report demographic data on traffic stops, and falsely reporting his own work time and collecting double pay as a result. He also had a reputation for very aggressive policing in a community of 2,600 with vanishingly low rates of violent crime. (He loved cosplaying as a rough, tough cop in full tactical gear as if he led a big-city SWAT team.)

When he took early retirement last year, he had the stones to complain about “unwarranted disrespect” — and the city council passed a resolution honoring him for his “years of dedicated service.” It’s unknown whether council members were wearing gimp masks when they voted on the measure.

And then we have Northfield Police Chief John Helfant, who complained about a Black Lives Matter flag at Randolph High School and got all hot and bothered about a transgender student using the girls’ locker room. He made comments that were so clearly bigoted that it’d be tough for Black or transgender folk to trust him to dispense justice dispassionately. Oh, and then-Washington County state’s attorney Rory Thibault filed a Brady letter against Helfant branding him an unreliable witness.

Still, town leadership stuck by him through thick (skull) and thin (skin). And now he’s retiring in May, and the town manager issued a statement in appreciation of his work.

After writing those previous paragraphs, I feel like I’m looking into a cesspool and only seeing the few turds that float to the surface. I don’t want to know what’s lurking beneath.

Back in the summer of George Floyd, Thibault wrote an essay calling for an “independent Office of the Inspector General for law enforcement activities to provide oversight of all law enforcement agencies in the state of Vermont.”

Seems like a good idea, but it might hurt the gentle fee-fees of our Folks In Blue. They’re remarkably sensitive.

Absent an independent IG, the situation seems to call for some kind of objective oversight of police activities. If I were a resident of Burlington, I’d find plenty of reason to vote for that Town Meeting Day measure to establish an independent police oversight board. There’s clearly a need for outside checks on our law enforcement agencies. Far too often, the inside folks can’t handle the job.


2 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What This Is, But It’s Not “Fantastic”

  1. Joe Blow

    Really easy to dump on SAPD if you bury the lede- 11/14 complaints were generated internally. Don’t we want cops intervening and escalating concerns when appropriate? It reminds me of when I first learned about all the SuperFund cleanup sites on Lake Champlain, 70(?) in the 90s. ‘Holy shit’ I thought, ‘is Lake Champlain that polluted?’ The 5 larger ones had far fewer sites. Turns out that’s barely the start of the story and the Great Lakes are more polluted but people give less of a shit to clean them up.

    Same thing here- we want cops to complain on other cops when they fuck up, we want demotions and other discipline normalized when they eff up.


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