Category Archives: justice and corrections

Stupid Pot Tricks

Never fear… the Essex County Sheriff’s Department is on the case!

A few years ago, when legalizing cannabis was still in the middle stages of legislative debate, Gov. Phil Scott acknowledged that he has plenty of friends who regularly partake of the demon weed. And yet he opposed further moves toward legalization or state regulation.

The underlying assumption was that of course, his friends would never get busted for pot. Nod and a wink, don’t ya know. It might be illegal on the books, but, ha ha, nobody ever enforces the law, so why not let sleeping laws lie?

Bruce Prosper, Jr. is why.

Prosper is the Northeast Kingdom resident who’s paralyzed from the waist down, and grows his own cannabis for medicinal use. Which caught the attention of an Essex County Sheriff’s deputy, who I believe is seen above riding the bumper in the lower left.

He went and got himself a search warrant, deputies descended on the Prosper home, and heroically arrested him and the rest of his family on felony charges that could bring up to 15 years in prison for each.

And the county prosecutor, the widely esteemed political fixer Vince Illuzzi, is insisting on going ahead with the case. Illuzzi told VTDigger that he’s “kind of caught,” adding that “We are obligated to enforce the law.”

Well, horsefeathers.

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The Slate Ridge Befuddlement

Bubbas gonna bubba.

The official response to the Slate Ridge “training facility” in West Pawlet has been… well, take your pick. Pitiful? Sure. Laughably inadequate? Yep. Chickenshit? Call it like you see it.

State officials have been “monitoring” the situation for over a year, but didn’t actually say anything in public until VTDigger published its report last week. And now they’re stumbling all over themselves, offering justifications for a year-plus of inaction.

Meanwhile, the people of West Pawlet live in fear. As I wrote on Twitter, now they know how Kiah Morris feels.

Here’s the gist of it, as far as I’m concerned. The system has failed the people of West Pawlet just as it failed Morris. In saying so, I’m assuming that the purpose of having laws and enforcement agencies is to keep people safe, allowing them to live their lives in peace and security.

On the other side of the coin, constitutional rights do not extend to instilling fear in your neighbors. A community is a collection of free individuals — but there must be a sense of polity, of common purpose, of some level of respect for the well-being of your neighbors as well as yourself. The denizens of Slate Ridge are violating the social contract that binds us all together.

And if there’s no law that can be applied to this case, then maybe we need some new laws.

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Cop Culture

Field trip!

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.

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The Democrats’ Union Problem

Four Democratic/Progressive candidates for the House, including two incumbents, have declined endorsements from the Vermont State Employees’ Union, citing “harmful inconsistencies in the organization’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.” (The four are Reps. Mari Cordes and Selene Colburn, and Democratic candidates Emmy Mulvaney-Stanak and Taylor Small.)

Or, to put it another way, the VSEA’s kneejerk support for its members — even the rotten apples threatening to spoil the bushel.

Protecting its members is a core mission for every union. But there can and should be exceptions to the rule. It’s really in the best interest of the union (and the labor movement) to ensure that the bad apples are removed before they harm the reputation of all its members. Kind of like when the Major League Baseball Players’ Association blocked meaningful action to address baseball’s rampant steroid problem. Was it really in the best interest of non-using MLBPA members to allow the cheaters to go on damaging the game?

No, but the PA acted on first instinct. And when the VSEA staunchly claims that all the problems in Vermont’s corrections system are on management, and asserts that its members are blameless? They’re doing the same thing. And it must be said, DOC members wield a lot of power in VSEA. So much so, that if I were a VSEA member in some other state agency, I’d be upset over the union’s inaction when scandalous behavior is unearthed at state prisons.

This creates a dilemma for Democratic officeholders.

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When Activism Turns Antisocial

My previous post was about the merchants of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace seeking legislative action to toughen anti-loitering and vagrancy laws — turning misdemeanors into criminal offenses. My point was that their fear and concern are understandable but misplaced. They face an existential crisis thanks to President Trump’s boneheaded handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the way forward is not to kick out or lock up the city’s most vulnerable; it’s to address the root causes of homelessness, substance use, mental illness, etc., in common cause with the city government, social service resources and members of the community.

Now we’ve got the inevitable egregious overreaction to the merchants’ pleas for help: a Twitter campaign urging a boycott of the merchants. One Tweeter, who shall go nameless here, warned signees “Get off the list or you’re in for a bad time.” Yeah, threats are always in season. Another pondered doing their shopping on Amazon instead of downtown retailers. The Burlington Tenants Union chimed in with support for the boycott.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about what we’re all — I hope — trying to accomplish: A city that’s compassionate, that tackles its problems in common cause, that seeks solutions that work for all its people.

The merchants are part of the Burlington community. They are taxpayers and employers. And they are currently going through a period of extreme stress. The last thing they need is a boycott. The last thing the entire city needs is a bunch of vacancies on Church Street. That would hurt the tax base and throw Burlingtonians out of work, leaving the city with fewer resources to tackle its problems.

If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’d listen to your patron saint, Bernie Sanders.

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The Collar and the Badge

In recent days, we’ve seen defensive protestations from two separate former Burlington police chiefs. The above comes from former chief and now rebranded 21st Century policing expert Brandon del Pozo. The second is in the resignation announcement of Jennifer Morrison, who tied her departure to the too-tough oversight by the busybodies on City Council.

In some ways I can sympathize. Burlington is a tough city for policing, never more so than right now. Progressives on City Council and community advocates often go over the top in their demands and their tactics. And as del Pozo noted in another tweet, many of the top cops who’ve resigned or been forced out across the country are among the more progressive members of that breed. To be sure, life is easier for the George Merkels and Paul Doucettes of the world, who rule the roost in communities that let the cops have their way.

For purposes of this blogpost, I am not questioning the good intentions of del Pozo or Morrison. But here’s the problem: Much like the Roman Catholic Church, the policing profession has forfeited the benefit of the doubt. There are far too many bad apples — and you know the real truth about bad apples is that unless they are removed, they spoil the barrel. In both professions, the bad apples have been allowed to remain.

The vast majority of Catholic priests and, for the sake of argument, top Church administrators operate faithfully, with good intentions. But the bad apples were protected, and the Church continues to pay a price. Who can take the Church seriously as a moral arbiter?

Winning back the lost trust will take several decades of good behavior and strict adherence to moral principles and the law. The same is now true of the policing profession — except they are still racking up fresh deficits.

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The Outsourcing of Bull Connor

The battle against Black Lives Matter is being massively escalated by the day. We’ve gone from Kyle RIttenhouse straight-up gunning people down, to pimped-out pickup trucks with pepper spray super soakers (and Trump flags) driving through crowds of peaceful protesters. (General Motors must be so proud of that product placement.)

I’m old enough to have witnessed some of the carnage of the 50s and 60s, when civil rights finally came to the Old South — and the South fought back with all its might. And this is same song, new verse, except the deadly force has been privatized. If anyone thought we’d made progress since 1965, or somehow become a post-racial society, explain this.

I can only imagine how any of my Black contemporaries feels about this, seeing those old fuzzy video images come back to life in the starkest possible way.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine. Here’s writer Damon Young on the subject of Black resilience.

Being born Black don’t make us any more resilient than anyone else. We ain’t stronger. We ain’t tougher. We’ve just been given more shit to carry. Our kinship with resilience is just us convincing ourselves we can hold that weight, and them justifying how heavy they pack our bags.

This is why Doc Rivers was moved to tears. This is why our best athletes are questioning whether they can go on playing the games they love. They are hurting in a deep and real way that us white folks can’t even imagine. They aren’t volunteering to share their pain, nor should be feel any obligation to do so, because it involves opening the wounds once again. That’s not something you do unless have no choice, because the pain is so great.

The President of the United States is acting like George Wallace, the O.G. segregationist who was willing to foment racial violence for the sake of his political benefit. Donald Trump shows that there are still plenty of white folks racist enough that all they need is a signal. Trump is blowing all the dog whistles as hard as he can, and will keep on doing it until Election Day.

Every day, every dog whistle, every act of racism, will cut to the bone. We can only hope it ends on Election Day with an unambiguous rejection of Trumpism. It’ll be bad enough when, as seems very likely, a majority of white voters choose Trump despite all of it.

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Waking Up to Racism

I’m 66 years old. And I’ve learned more about racism this year from reading three books than I’d managed to learn in my entire lifetime before.

The books, pictured above, read in this order: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Before I explain what these books have taught me, I need to write about how I got here in the first place. I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Detroit. I went to a very good public school system and a top-notch university. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve been aware of racism as an issue. I’ve tried my best to not be a racist. I’ve tried to be an ally.

But there are huge gaps in my knowledge of American and world history that kept me from realizing the true depth and impact of racism in my country. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance, and I’m doing my best to rectify the situation.

Up to a point, I can blame my education. “World History” as it was taught in school and college was a joke; it basically included European history plus a Euro-centric view of Middle Eastern history. When I was in college, Black Studies was starting to be a thing — but I never thought it relevant to me, since I was already a good white liberal who marched in Open Housing protests in my lily-white suburb.

Since I graduated (in 1978), I’ve been responsible for my own intellectual diet. I’ve read tons of books and thought myself well-educated, but I’ve never consciously chosen to read anything about race relations. Offhand, I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever read by a Black author. I’ve likely read one or two, but nothing that’s ever left a mark on my thick skull.

No W.E.B. DuBois, no James Baldwin, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston or Octavia Butler or Angela Davis or bell hooks, no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. No Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even his run on Black Panther. I’ve never read a biography of a Black person, or anything focused on African history. My leisure reading is mainly sci-fi and mystery, but never have I ever read Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin or Walter Moseley.

And I’ll bet I’m far from alone among the ranks of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading*, comfortable, well-meaning white folks. My lack of knowledge and perspective have severely hampered my ability to see the world clearly or to be an effective ally.

*I let my subscription lapse a couple years ago and made a deliberate decision to read more books. I’ve never regretted it.

So now, the books.

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The Cops Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

In the least shocking news of the year, Vermont Police are still being racist about their traffic stops.

The same research team that found racial disparities in traffic stops and searches two years ago, has updated its report to reflect two more years of data. And while there’s been some incremental improvement, things “are getting worse or staying the same,” according to lead researcher (and UVM prof) Stephanie Seguino.

Topline takeaways: You’re much more likely to be pulled over if you’re black or Hispanic in Vermont. If you’re pulled over, you’re much more likely to be searched — even though searches of white drivers are much more likely to uncover illegal activity.

The cherry on top: Despite a 2014 law mandating that police report the apparent race of each driver stopped, plenty of cops are flouting the law. Take, for example, Bennington’s racist PD, which is omitting the data more frequently than ever. And the Rutland PD, which has a specific problem with including racial data: “…for the 457 stops where race of the driver is not known, less than 1% of those stops had any other missing information about the stop.”

So now what? More sensitivity training? “Tough conversations”? Earnest promises to do better?

Yeah, a lot of that — although some can’t even be bothered to pretend to care. Bennington chief Paul Doucette lamely offered that he needed more time to look at the report before commenting. (The report notes that the volume of traffic stops in Bennington increased by 65% between 2015 and 2019. If Doucette has had any second thoughts about his minions’ racist performance, the word hasn’t filtered down through the ranks.)

And, judging by his track record, he probably hung up the phone and tossed the report into the circular file.

Which is not to say that we should place all the blame at the feet of a few cops and chiefs. After all, the thing about “bad apples” is that they spoil the barrel.

Or maybe the whole barrel was spoiled to begin with.

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How Many Merkels?

Get a load of this mook, all tac’d up like he patrols the Mean Streets of Detroit or summat

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.

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