ST. ALBANS — St. Albans Police Dept. (SAPD) officers will be going through two trainings on how to deescalate situations in order to avoid using force.
The training follows changes to policies on use of force, including a new duty to intervene when an officer observes another using excessive force. The city is also adding a commander to the night shift.
These changes follow three incidents reported in the state media.
“Law enforcement in an ever changing discipline,” said St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor. “You learn every day from what happened yesterday.”
“We learned some lessons about deficiencies in policies and procedures,” he added.
While the department is making changes, Taylor is clear to address one accusation which has appeared in the statewide press: “There is no culture of violence here,” he said.
Numbers requested by the Messenger appear to bear that out.
Between Jan. 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2019, the SAPD made 3,241 arrests, including people who were publicly intoxicated and taken into custody for detoxification. During 122 of those arrests, 3.76 percent, some level of force was used. A taser was drawn 34 times, 1.04 percent of arrests, and deployed 22 times, 0.68 percent of arrests.
However, one officer, Corporal Mark Schwartz, was the officer in seven of those instances. In two of the instances, he used his taser twice, once in stun mode and once with electrodes attaching to someone.
Schwartz was also the SAPD’s use of force training officer. That has changed, said Taylor.
The SAPD’s use of force policy around tasers has also changed since Seven Days showed footage from Schwartz’s body cam of him using force during an arrest last February.
The SAPD policy used to match the state policy, stating a taser could be used “where subject is exhibiting active aggression or is actively resisting in a manner that, in the officer’s judgment, is likely to result in injuries to others or themselves.”
As of Jan. 14, the policy now states a taser may be used “where subject is exhibiting assaultive aggression.” Active resistance is no longer grounds for using a taser.
At another point, the policy now states: “As with any less then lethal tool or piece of equipment, officers shall always use the least amount of force necessary and will utilize all other reasonable means and efforts prior to resorting to the use of a [taser], unless circumstances dictate otherwise.”
The new policy encourages officers to do “everything within reason” before deploying a taser, Taylor said.
When someone is actively resisting being taken into custody but is not threatening the officer, the policy recommends using the taser in stun mode.
Nevertheless, Taylor defended Schwartz’s use of a taser against Vincent Ford last February as being within the guidelines of the old policy. The video, he said, doesn’t show the witnesses pointing at Ford or the window he smashed on his way out of 184 Main after being ejected for disorderly behavior.
“The individual stops and faces the officer, but verbally challenges the officer and continues on his way,” said Taylor. “I know it happens very quickly.”
“He had been physical in the bar,” Taylor said of Ford, and Schwartz believed that if he grabbed Ford to stop him from fleeing the result would have been a physical fight. “It comes back to the totality of the circumstances.”
However, Taylor did say, “I want ‘em to slow down a little and use other means if possible.”
An internal investigation was conducted of the incident in which Lt. Jason Wetherby concluded Schwartz had not violated either state or department policy regarding use of tasers.
Attorney Jay Diaz with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union disagreed, pointing to the second part of the policy which states the active aggression must be “likely to result in injuries.” Fleeing is “not a justification to use force, especially electrocution force,” said Diaz.
Nationwide and in Vermont taser use has led to death. Because of that risk, “we take it very seriously,” said Diaz.
Taylor points to the new SAPD policy as part of the ongoing evolution in the use of tasers. Originally, they were seen as a way to reduce physical fights between officers and people they were arresting, said Taylor. But following instances of death and serious injury, policies governing their use became more restrictive.
While all officers in Vermont are required to report when they draw or use a taser, not all departments require that reports be filed every time force is used. The SAPD does and has for years.
However, an incident involving former Sgt. Jason Lawton revealed some holes in that policy. Lawton struck a woman in police custody. He filed a use of force report that was extremely brief, stating only that he had used a “compliance strike” against the woman.
The report was reviewed by command staff, but no investigation was done. At that time, investigations were done when something about the report raised a red flag. Nothing in Lawton’s report did. Neither of the other two officers involved filed use of force reports, believing they were covered by Lawton’s report, as he was the senior officer.
The SAPD has since made multiple changes. All uses of force will be investigated, including a review of footage from body and cruiser cameras. Lt. Ben Couture, who heads the SAPD’s detective unit, will conduct those investigations.
All officers involved in a use of force incident are required to file a report. Any use of excessive force must be reported within 24 hours, regardless of whether or not more senior officers are present.
That change was accompanied by a duty to intervene directive which states that an officer observing another using more force than is “’objectively reasonable’ under the circumstances will, when in a position to do so, safely intercede to prevent or stop the use of excessive force.” The policy further states that it is the duty of each officer present to intervene, regardless of the presence of an officer of higher rank or seniority.
Diaz said he was pleased to see the changes. “Not every police department actually takes steps to change policy when these things come to light,” he said. “A willingness to reform is an important piece of the puzzle.”
However, he added that the true test will be whether or not officers are held accountable to the new policies.
The SAPD does have a history of enforcing its rules. When Cpl. Joel Daugreilh used pepper spray against a restrained prisoner in 2017, the incident was promptly reported to superiors who opened an administrative investigation. When Daugreilh chose to resign four days after the incident, the SAPD referred it to the Vermont State Police and attorney general’s office for a criminal investigation. Attorney General T.J. Donovan initially declined to investigate, but recently reopened the case.
In the Lawton case, the officer was placed on administrative leave once the chief learned of the incident and ultimately dismissed. A former officer, Paul Morits, has claimed he informed the chief of the incident at the time, which Taylor disputes.
Administrative investigations are a necessary first step, said Taylor, because if an officer is immediately referred for a criminal investigation and charges are brought, the rules around police employment mean the department cannot dismiss the officer until the criminal case is resolved, which often takes at least a year. Conducting an administrative investigation first enables the department to fire the officer before the criminal case begins.
Police officers are not “at will” employees, said Taylor. “There has to be due process followed at every step, every junction along the way.”
The city has maintained that the disciplinary action taken in the Lawton and Daulgreilh incidents shows the SAPD follows its procedures. If action had not been taken that would be concerning, city manager Dominic Cloud previously told the Messenger.
The addition of a commander to the night shift will also bolster supervision during the shift when incidents involving the use of force are most likely to occur.
When pressed, Taylor defended the continued use of tasers, despite the risks to those tased. “We show up and they’ve got a knife, wouldn’t you rather we taser them than shoot them?” he asked. “It’s got to be the appropriate tool at the appropriate time,” he said, adding that in 98 percent of the time SAPD officers choose the right tool.
“I’m not excusing bad behavior or misconduct here,” said Taylor. “I am not. At the same time we have to be fair and balanced.”
Because officers must make split second decisions, Taylor believes 12-hour shifts, which are popular among officers because they allow for four days off, are too long. He wants to negotiate a shorter work shift with the police union. “Our experience is we think the number of hours worked is directly connected to critical thinking skills.”
Taylor has no doubt about the intentions of SAPD officers. “We have good officers here who believe in what they do.”