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.
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.”
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.