What explains the rash of criminal acts by Vermont police?
Last February, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office issued a press release announcing that a former Orleans County sheriff’s deputy had been criminally charged for barging into an ex-lover’s house in a jealous rage and later pulling her over in his police cruiser without a lawful reason. Russell E. Lindemann, the press release said, faced one misdemeanor count of neglect of duty and one felony count of unlawful trespass. His age was listed as 39. Court papers filed by the attorney general’s office indicated his date of birth was October 18, 1971.
Problem is, Lindemann’s actual age is 53, his date of birth August 31, 1957. As it turns out, the 1971 birth date belongs to another Vermont cop facing criminal charges: Joshua Lemieux, a 39-year-old state trooper accused of driving drunk following an altercation outside a Rutland bar last October.
The attorney general’s office could be forgiven for the mix-up. It’s prosecuting more criminal cases against Vermont police officers now than at any time in almost 15 years, according to assistant attorney general Cindy Maguire, who heads the office’s criminal division. Currently, five former cops face pending charges, ranging from a state trooper accused of molesting and taking nude photos of a teenage girl, to a Barre cop charged with stealing a flat-screen TV from under a neighbor’s Christmas tree.
It’s hard to open the newspaper or turn on the evening news these days without hearing about another Vermont cop on the wrong side of the law. In the past two years, no fewer than 11 police officers have been charged with crimes and, in some cases, convicted of them.
The former police chief of Vergennes served six months in prison for fraud and DUI related to his prescription-pill addiction. Numerous officers are facing domestic-abuse charges for allegedly roughing up women. On July 14, a former Rutland city police sergeant pleaded “no contest” to neglect of duty — not admitting his guilt, but acknowledging the state has enough evidence to convict — after he lied to detectives investigating how a cache of child pornography photos ended up on his department-issued laptop. And just last weekend, an off-duty Winooski police officer was charged with DUI when he was allegedly found slumped over the steering wheel of his truck in the median of Interstate 89 with a blood alcohol content four times the legal limit.
While the vast majority of Vermont’s 1600 or so sworn police officers carry out their duties professionally and without incident, the recent crop of bad apples could give the impression that there’s an epidemic in the ranks of Vermont’s law enforcers.
Cops committing crimes is nothing new — even in Vermont, where the violent crime rate is one of the lowest in the country. Maguire rattles off a laundry list of charges the attorney general has brought against Vermont police officers since she joined the office in 1997: reckless endangerment, petty larceny, simple assault, aggravated assault, embezzlement, driving under the influence, burglary and neglect of duty, among others.
But the recent rash of charges is like nothing Maguire has ever seen.
“I can’t recall when we’ve had five open, pending criminal cases in the courts at one time,” she says.
And it’s not just criminally charged cops making headlines these days. Allegations of officer misconduct are also popping up with striking frequency. South Burlington are now facing three separate civil lawsuits over the tactics of Jack O’Connor, a recently fired cop who stands accused of illegal strip searches and falsifying details of reports to make illegal traffic stops look legal. Town officials in Hartford have asked state cops to investigate their own police department after a claim of excessive force: A Quechee man says he was handcuffed and forced down head-first on his driveway after a minor traffic incident. That’s the same department that pepper-sprayed Wayne Burwell, an unarmed black man in diabetic shock, in his own home after police mistook him for an intruder.
What’s responsible for the surge in cop crimes and misconduct? Seven Days posed that question to a host of law-enforcement professionals, as well as to watchdogs who guard against abuse. Most said each case has its individual logic, and warned against gleaning evidence of trends where there is none. But many agree that the reported incidents underscore a few principles. Namely, officer training could be better, accountability could be increased and Vermont could do a better job of screening out rotten apples before they spoil the whole bunch.
The uptick in charges coincides with the release of a new report that sheds light on a host of problems plaguing the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford — where Vermont’s law enforcers are trained and certified — and the quasi-state-run Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council that oversees it.
James W. Baker, a former head of the Vermont State Police, was brought in to lead the troubled academy in January 2010, following the suicide of a training coordinator who was under investigation for possessing child pornography on his work computer.
When Baker got to the police academy, he found the institution in “chaos and turmoil,” according to his 29-page report.
Baker did not return numerous messages left at the Manchester Police Department, where he is now acting chief. But his report describes what he found over his 17 months as interim executive director: a toxic culture where training coordinators ran amok, public money was unaccounted for and government oversight was virtually nonexistent.
“The culprit,” Baker writes, “was complacency.” He describes a “history of training coordinator misconduct.” Four separate training coordinators were involved in misconduct, and the executive director’s job was a revolving door through which five people passed in 12 years — a problem Baker attributes in part to the $72,000 salary being too low to attract highly qualified candidates.
In his report, Baker describes a floundering institution beset by multiple years of budget deficits, mismanagement of grant funds and an IT system that was “one failure away from a complete shutdown.” Every employee had a VPA credit card — with no official purchase limit, Baker notes. Comparing VPA’s basic training program to a “prison,” Baker says the paramilitary structure — recruits and their training supervisors lived in close quarters 24 hours a day, five days a week — led to numerous improper relationships with “sexual overtones.”
“The Vermont Police Academy is at the core of creating a professional model in the State of Vermont,” Baker writes. “It is where the culture of policing in Vermont is instilled in recruits. There is little room for error.”
So, could the culture of the Vermont Police Academy have something to do with the rash of bad cops?
“Now you’re just reaching,” answers Richard Gauthier, the current executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. “That’s just a stretch.”
Gauthier reasons that, in any given population of professionals, there will be some bad actors. Police officers, by their nature, draw notice when they step out of line. But that doesn’t mean he’s excusing bad behavior when it happens.
“The public has every right to expect officers to live up to the ideals they swear to uphold,” Gauthier says. “Deviations are relatively rare, and they stand out.”
On the whole, Gauthier says, the hundreds of academy graduates who are policing Vermont’s cities and towns are professionals with unimpeachable integrity. However, “you are occasionally going to get the officer that ignores that.
“If you look at law enforcement as a whole and look at overall numbers, and look at the numbers that get into trouble, you’ll find it’s an insignificant percentage,” Gauthier says.
Gauthier points out that, in Vermont, where major news events and full-fledged police corruption are rare, every cop charged with a crime becomes front-page news — no matter what the alleged offense.
“People in this state have not become so jaded with their law enforcement that they will overlook stuff that would get overlooked somewhere else,” Gauthier says. “People in this state have high expectations of law-enforcement officers. So when an officer doesn’t live up to that, it becomes news.”
Burlington Police chief Michael Schirling, whose department has been spared embarrassing scandals in recent years, offers another reason for the behavior of law-breaking officers: stress. As the social safety net has frayed, street-beat cops have become not just law enforcers but caseworkers.
“It’s an enormous amount of pressure,” says Schirling. “With that comes stress, and if you don’t have good avenues to take care of stress, if you’re not thinking consciously about mental health, that can lead to some of the same ways stress manifests in the general population: drinking or substance abuse.”
Alcohol and drugs have certainly factored in the misdeeds of several of Vermont’s bad boys in blue — and recently they have all been men.
Zak Winston was a 34-year-old Barre City cop when he was charged with burglary, unlawful trespass, unlawful mischief and resisting arrest for a crime reminiscent of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He allegedly entered a neighbor’s Montpelier apartment at two in the morning, stole her new flat-screen TV from under the Christmas tree and tossed it into the Winooski River when police questioned him about it.
Two days after his arrest, Winston, who has a misdemeanor conviction from 1998 for possessing alcohol as a minor, hand-wrote a letter to the judge stating he suffered from alcoholism and depression and asking permission to enter a 30-day residential rehabilitation program in Florida. Winston has since resigned from the Barre police force.
Stress-related or not, domestic assault has been another recurring theme in criminal charges against officers.
In Bennington County, sheriff’s deputy Wayne Davis, 43, is facing multiple rounds of charges stemming from a domestic assault that occurred at a Route 7 motel on his birthday, March 6. Davis’ wife told police that her husband barged into the room, called her a “fucking whore” and threw a can of soda at her before wrapping his hands around her neck in a choke hold. Weeks later, Davis who has pleaded not guilty, was charged with obstructing justice and violating conditions of release after allegedly calling his wife and saying that if she left him, she would “regret it.”
Davis’ wife, Elizabeth, told police her husband had been physically abusing her throughout their 19-year marriage — over time resulting in a broken jaw and ribs and a trip to the hospital — and she feared he would “get away with it because he is a sheriff deputy.
“This officer assured E Davis that if an offense occurred than [sic] the offender would be held accountable,” wrote Bennington police officer David Faden, “regardless of who it is.”
All this points to a serious accountability problem, according to Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. The ACLU has been a vocal watchdog of alleged police misconduct and an advocate for more transparency in police investigations. Gilbert says that, because police often investigate themselves when wrongdoing is alleged, citizens can be left in the dark and public police agencies remain less accountable. Furthermore, Vermont’s weak public-records laws keep the entire process behind closed doors.
Gilbert believes Vermont should license and regulate police officers the same way it does dozens of other professionals — from plumbers and electricians to hairdressers, nurses and tattoo artists.
At present, full-time law-enforcement officers are certified after they complete 16 weeks of basic training at the police academy. Almost a quarter of Vermont’s 1631 officers, however, are part-time cops serving communities that can’t afford a full-time force. Part-time officers require just five days of academy training for certification, plus 110 hours of additional training. The yearly requirements for maintaining certification are minimal: 25 hours of training plus firearms testing for full-time officers, and slightly more hours for part-time cops.
Gilbert says licensing cops would ensure that officers meet rigorous professional standards, subject them to regular reviews and allow an independent board to receive complaints from the public and weigh them at an officer’s relicensing. Perhaps more importantly, Gilbert says, it would enable Vermont to strip the licenses of cops who are found guilty of a crime or misconduct. As of 2009, Vermont officers can be decertified for certain offenses — a felony conviction or a failure to maintain training requirements, for instance. But that decision rests with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, rather than with independent professional regulators. Plus, that recourse has only been employed once in the past two years, when Northfield Police chief Jeffrey Shaw was decertified for falsifying training records.
In his report on the Vermont Police Academy, James Baker recommends licensing police officers through the Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation, even as he admits that doing so “may not be politically possible.” Still, he writes that the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council currently has no staff or structure to investigate and formally document officer misconduct, a lack he calls “a major shortcoming.” Enhancing the council’s credibility hinges partly on more aggressively investigating and decertifying officers who are convicted of crimes, Baker writes.
Gilbert says licensing would only work if police themselves got behind the idea. “The really good cops would like to see a system of statewide licensing, because they know it harms the profession when you have bad cops,” he says.
Inadequate screening of police recruits presents another potential source of problems. The police academy only requires recruits to pass a written entrance exam and physical fitness test. Beyond that, they get whatever screening the sponsoring department requires. And the level of scrutiny officers undergo can vary dramatically.
In Burlington, for instance, chief Schirling says recruits get put through the wringer: a psychological profile, an oral interview panel, a polygraph exam and a multipage personal inventory. Recruits who pass all that are thoroughly investigated for any dirt that escaped the dragnet.
Smaller departments on limited budgets are often less thorough. Gauthier says he’s aware of several departments that do not put recruits though a polygraph test, though he declined to name them.
Gauthier says a $500 polygraph test can often detect things in a candidate’s history, such as drug use, that might not turn up in a background check if the candidate was never arrested. While he favors standardized screening for all Vermont police recruits, he says some agencies can’t afford it. “The reality is, [departments] have to deal with staffing issues,” Gauthier says, “and staffing issues are extremely difficult at this point in time.”
Public reactions to law-breaking cops have varied as widely as their alleged crimes — from sympathy to outrage.
Traci Pena’s response to the porn-related arrest of former Rutland police Sgt. David Schauwecker was disgust at what she saw as the “lying” swirling around the investigation and the “lack of leadership” in the department. Pena notes that when Schauwecker was first asked why he visited numerous pornographic websites on his department-issued laptop, he claimed it was to research what types of cameras they used, because the department was considering purchasing little cameras that clip onto an officer’s uniform shirt.
“That’s just highly offensive to me, [for him] to believe people are that stupid to believe that,” says Pena, a recent transplant to Rutland who owns a boutique called Reincarnation. “If he had just come forward and gotten help, I could embrace that. What I can’t embrace is people lying on my tax dollars.”
Last year, Pena circulated a petition online demanding a review of the Rutland Police Department by outside investigators. Her goal was 500 signatures — enough to put it on the town-meeting ballot — but she only collected about 100. Pena believes many in town were reluctant to speak out publicly.
The reaction to Michael Lowe’s crimes was far more sympathetic. When the former Vergennes police chief was being sentenced for crimes related to prescription-drug abuse last year, the court was flooded with letters from the public pleading for leniency. Lowe, 53, had become hooked on the prescription opiates hydrocodone and oxycodone following a surgery in 2007 and faced up to four years in prison after pleading guilty to obtaining regulated drugs by fraud (a felony), DUI by drugs and neglect of duty.
Along with several relatives, numerous Vergennes business owners wrote letters asking that Lowe, who had funded his habit in part by selling a handgun seized by police after a suicide, be sentenced to community service. James Weening, owner of Classic Stitching, wrote, “Perhaps, police officers are held to a higher standard because ‘they should know better,’ but police officers are human like everyone else. Perhaps police officers should face tougher punishments because of that insider knowledge, but they too make mistakes and face issues and problems like the rest of us.”
Ultimately, the judge sentenced Lowe to six months in prison, and he remains on probation today.
Assistant attorney gerneral Maguire says the attorney general’s office weighs several factors in deciding what punishments to seek for criminal cops, including how the officer’s alleged crime affects the credibility of his or her department. The fact that Lowe was police chief warranted a stiffer sentence, she says.
“There’s a difference between violating the public trust and making a personal mistake,” Maguire says. “In the Lowe case, where you have a chief of police and you have the facts as they were, that was a case that very much warranted jail time.”
Attorney General William Sorrell has been criticized by some observers who say he goes easy on cops, particularly when investigating uses of deadly force. But Maguire says Sorrell’s office has prosecuted more officers than any other one in Vermont — even bringing them to trial when plea deals couldn’t be reached. That has led to some losses over the years, including a hung jury in the trial of a state trooper charged with assaulting a prisoner.
But lately the attorney general has seen some victories. When he recently announced the plea deal with David Schauwecker, which comes with a $1000 fine but no jail time or probation, Sorrell sought to send a stern message to all Vermont cops. “This criminal conviction,” he proclaimed, “should serve as a warning to those officials who would violate the public trust that such misconduct will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted.”