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.”Continue reading