For many years there have been complaints that when the attorney general and local prosecutors investigate alleged police misconduct, the result is almost always the same -- the conduct is deemed acceptable and no charges are brought. But Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan tried a different route in the case of a Winooski officer who first Tased and then shot a mentally ill man in April. He called for a grand jury to hear testimony and consider whether charges should be filed against the officer. The grand jury has finished its work and this week "returned a true bill" -- the officer will be charged on one felony and two misdemeanor counts.
Donovan got it right when, leaving the courtroom after the proceeding, he told a Burlington Free Press reporter, “This case is important because it is a case about public trust. It is a case where the standard has to be consistent, that a police officer has to be held to the same standard as an ordinary citizen.” (Read the Free Press story.)
Vermont has no consistent protocol for holding police officers accountable for their actions while on duty. Whereas most professions in the state are licensed, police are not. They are certified to be an officer upon completion of a training course at the Vermont Police Academy, but after that there’s no regular re-certification to make sure police officers are up-to-date in training and best practices, and remain competent to practice in the profession.
What oversight exists comes from within the department where an officer is employed. In rare cases, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council can revoke an officer’s certification. But that hardly ever happens. The grounds for decertification are very narrow.
In none of the oversight mechanisms that do exist is review done by an independent, outside board – the standard mechanism used in licensing the people who practice in the 45 other professions that are regulated by the state.
To make matters worse, there are no statewide police standards against which officers can be judged. Standards are adopted department by department, with many important standards such as use-of-force varying from one department to the next.
Police licensing bills have been introduced in the legislature, but the state Law Enforcement Advisory Board has said existing internal mechanisms can be used more effectively to provide meaningful oversight. Licensing efforts are on hold while that approach is tried.
Criminal charges filed by prosecutors in court represent the most extreme form of discipline that can be brought against an officer – which may explain why they’re rarely brought. Certain recent cases – such as the Taser death of a Thetford man by Vermont State Police -- have raised the question of when, if ever, criminal charges may be brought against an officer for his or her actions.
The Winooski case provides one answer to that question. A jury of citizens – independent, removed from the agency where the officer works – is willing to sit and listen to evidence and decide whether there’s a probability the officer broke the law. If the jury’s decision is “yes,” charges are brought.
The bringing of charges – an indictment – is not a statement the officer is guilty of committing any crimes. But it’s a statement that there’s enough evidence that s/he might have and the case needs to be brought before a judge.
This is a lot more than what has been happening. And no matter the final outcome of the criminal proceedings against the Winooski officer, the public will have much greater confidence that justice has been done in the name of a mentally ill man who was treated violently by an agency meant to protect us.