Hartford Residents Want Independent Police Oversight
07/26/11 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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(Host) Three times over the past year, police in the town of Hartford have been accused of using unnecessary force in investigating an alleged crime. The chief defends his officers.
But, as VPR's Charlotte Albright reports in the second part of our series, some in town want independent oversight of police.
(Albright) The latest incident came in June when Quechee businessman Darrek Daoust's van went off the road late at night.
He says his van wasn't in the road. So he left it there and walked the short distance home, intending to deal with it in the morning.
But police showed up in the middle of the night and, he says, roughed him up as they forced him onto his driveway and into a police cruiser, without advising him of his rights or explaining why he was being handcuffed.
(Daoust) "Nothing, at least, I don't know, maybe they did because they hit me so hard in the back of the head that they did say it to me and I didn't hear them. I have no idea."
(Albright) Police say they have reason to suspect Daoust had been driving drunk, although they never tested his blood-alcohol level and didn't charge him with DUI.
At the station, they cited him with leaving the scene of an accident-a citation that was later rescinded and replaced with "negligent operation of a vehicle." The story ran prominently in the Valley News, and lit up a local listerve, where the discussion goes beyond Daoust's case.
Last May, an African-American man mistaken for a burglar was taken out of his own house, and pepper sprayed.
A probe by the attorney general's office exonerated the officers involved.
The following September, a woman suffered a concussion during a police investigation into domestic violence. Eyewitnesses blame the officers. Police say the inebriated woman fell. The attorney general is reviewing that case.
All this is giving the town itself a black eye in some quarters.
Town resident FX Flinn is a computer consultant who has set up the list serve where townspeople have registered their concerns. The list has about 300 subscribers. Flinn says he's heard similar complaints on the street about overzealous policing in Hartford, even during routine traffic stops.
(Flinn) "And you hear these stories and then you hear about a friend of yours, you know very well, being dragged out of his house and winding up face down on the driveway and getting whacked with a flashlight. And you really have to wonder if there is some type of attitude that has got implanted in our police force that allows these incidents to happen."
(Albright) Flinn figures neither the cops nor the people they have been confronting are blameless, but he is concerned enough about a trend to suggest launching an informal citizens review board.
(Flinn) "Not to have a big bureaucratic thing, not to create a whole new legal process. But to have a forum on the public record where people could go and gripe about these things, and if we wound up having 20 such complaints a year that would tell us that there really was something going on. And if we had two a year then we could say, ‘You know what, some people are just reacting badly, it's isolated, let's not worry about it.'"
(Albright) Vermont Law School Professor Michelle Martinez-Campbell, who used to be a prosecutor, says such review boards are more common in large cities where endemic police brutality is a bigger problem, especially when combined with racial profiling-as in Los Angeles in the nineteen seventies and eighties.
(Martinez-Campbell) "It's quite unusual in smaller venues and, really, I've only seen it done where there was a long term problem that was not addressed."
(Albright) Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg says critics should wait for state police investigators to look into the Daoust case.
Such official reviews, he says, are more objective than citizens on review boards, who may not be legally trained.
(Rieseberg) "There are very few of them in New England. I think their interest is a bit passé at this point. But, again, the people who become involved in these associations or groups, I think, have to be educated in criminal law and court proceedings and law enforcement procedures and policies. And not a lot changes when people become well informed in the details of these proceedings."
(Albright) Town resident FX Flinn doubts that a review board will be formed, as long as support from town government for that extra layer of oversight is lukewarm. But some residents on his list-serve say they want citizens to be involved. They say they're wary of relying on the Vermont State Police because of the close relationship between local police and their counterparts in the state force.
For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright.