ST. ALBANS CITY — On Monday night the St. Albans City Council unanimously adopted an internal affairs policy outlining how the department will handle complaints about its officers.
The council initially discussed the policy at its September meeting. After hearing from members of the public with suggestions for improvements, the council agreed to hold off on adopting the policy to allow for changes.
The revised policy incorporated many of the public’s recommendations, but not all.
The issue: Use of force by the SAPD
The St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD) was involved in three separate use of force incidents which came to light last year. The officers involved are no longer with the department and two have been charged with simple assault.
Another former officer, Zachary Pigeon, was arrested after allegedly assaulting a woman to prevent her from telling anyone about sexual abuse she had experienced at his hands when she was a girl and he was a teenager. Pigeon is facing numerous criminal charges.
In response, the city hired an outside consultant to examine its hiring and training practices. A process which has expanded to include an extensive review of policies and procedures at the department.
What happened next:
The internal affairs policy is one of the first to be reviewed and formally adopted by the city council. It lays out:
- the process for filing complaints;
- how the SAPD will handle the complaint;
- classification of the complaints and hiring of an outside investigator for serious complaints;
- referral to other agencies when complaint involves a possible crime;
- notification requirements to both the complainant and the officer;
- who will conduct investigations;
- the five possible outcomes of investigations; and
- annual reporting to the public.
Improvements suggested by the public in September which were incorporated into the policy include:
- making the complaint form available at a location other than the police department or online — the forms will now be available at city hall;
- including a definition of bias and harassment, which have a separate complaint form;
- specifying how complaints against the chief will be handled — they will go to the city manager;
- allowing for an annual public report summarizing the types of complaints received and their outcomes may be made available more frequently at the direction of the city manager or council;
- stating clearly that no member of the SAPD may have contact with a complainant except the assigned investigator.
The city did not incorporate a recommendation to create an appeal process, an option which generated the most discussion on Monday night.
Serious complaints, those involving excessive use of force, conduct unbecoming an officer, illegal or criminal conduct, driving while intoxicated, brutality, corruption, or breach of civil rights will be investigated by an independent third party retained at the city’s expense.
Having the conclusions of the independent investigator appealed to the council or manager undercuts the point of having an outside investigator, St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud argued. “None of us have the qualifications to second guess that opinion,” he said.
Under the city’s charter, personnel decisions rest ultimately with the city manager. Under the policy, a serious issue, such as use of force, will be investigated by a third party which will then issue a report. If the investigation determines the complaint is sustained, meaning the evidence shows the officer acted in the manner alleged, then the chief and the manager will have to decide what disciplinary action to take.
If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the investigation or the subsequent action taken by the city, they have the option of filing a lawsuit, Cloud said. Under Vermont law, should the complainant prevail, they will receive attorney’s fees.
Ward 1 Councilor Tim Hawkins questioned that approach, saying administrative procedures generally have an appeal option, which could save the city legal fees.
Cloud responded that issues involving police are fundamentally different from someone appealing a permit decision by the zoning administrator to the Development Review Board. Those involve interpretation of the city’s by-laws. “It’s the uniqueness of this kind of claim,” he said. “This is the exercise of force by a governmental power.”
In addition, zoning decisions don’t involve an independent investigation, Cloud pointed out.
“I don’t want to be in a position as a civilian member of the council trying to adjudicate those kind of situations,” said Ward 4 Councilor Mike McCarthy.
Councilor Chad Spooner, Ward 5, asked what would happen if the city’s outside investigators exonerated an officer, but the attorney general decided to bring charges.
At that point, the city’s disciplinary policy would kick in, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. “They can’t be a police officer if you’re being charged by the attorney general,” Cloud said.
Hawkins also expressed concern about the council learning about complaints in a timely manner.
Cloud pointed out that it is his job to keep the council informed. “If the city manager doesn’t tell the city council that there’s an excessive force complaint, then you ought to be looking for a new city manager. That’s my job to keep you in the loop,” he said.