ST. ALBANS CITY — A St. Albans City police officer struck a Highgate woman while she was in custody at the department’s headquarters.
The officer, Sgt. Jason Lawton, has been fired.
Amy Connelly, 35, was arrested on March 14 following an incident at Shooters Saloon in which she is accused of tearing the owner’s shirt.
Connelly, who was intoxicated, was arrested and placed in a detention cell at the SAPD. She remained handcuffed, which SAPD Chief Gary Taylor said was not unusual for someone who had been resistant or defiant.
“They’re standard cells,” he said when asked about the size of the small cell.
Video from SAPD cameras shows Connelly kicking the door and making a whining noise.
Lawton opens the door and tells her “Don’t kick my door.” She stands, and Lawton tells her to sit. She makes another whining noise that sounds like “no.”
Lawton then pushes her, with visible force, back onto the bench in the cell, after which he says, “Don’t come at me like that.”
Insisting “he has hurt me,” Connelly stands again. Telling her to “shut up,” Lawton then entered the cell.
He can be seen striking Connelly, saying, “You [expletive] kicked me.”
Two other officers enter behind Lawton and the three take her from the cell, forcing her to the floor in front of the cell.
Lawton can be heard telling her that she will now be charged with assault and will be going to jail. He and another officer continued to hold her down while the third goes to get an additional set of cuffs.
“You guys are brutes,” Connelly says.
“Sure,” Lawton answers.
“You guys are animals,” Connelly says while the third officer cuffs her legs.
One of the other officers mentions that Connelly was in detox earlier and just released.
“Why would you do this? Why?” she asks repeatedly as they move her into a sitting position and then instruct her to return to the bench.
She refuses, saying, “You guys have abused me. My brother’s on the selectboard.”
“Who cares?” Lawton replies. “I’m sure he’d be really proud of you.”
Connelly can then be seen kneeling in the entrance to the cell, saying that police abused her.
According to Taylor, he learned of the incident when the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union requested video footage of Connelly’s detention.
Lt. Ben Couture had been tasked with pulling the footage. After viewing it, he brought it to Taylor’s attention, saying it may require an internal investigation.
Lt. Jason Wetherby was assigned to conduct that investigation, and Lawton was placed on administrative leave. At the conclusion of the investigation, on July 1, Lawton was fired.
One of the other officers involved in the incident resigned after “a conversation,” said Taylor. The other is under investigation. That investigation is expected to conclude this week.
Asked about their response, Taylor said, “In a perfect world, you’d intervene and stop it from happening.”
However, he said that can be difficult for new officers, especially when dealing with a supervisor.
He was concerned that neither of the other officers alerted a senior officer.
The incident has led to some changes in the SAPD’s review of use of force reports. Whenever force, or even the threat of force is used, officers file a report.
Soem of those would then receive further review by SAPD leadership.
Now all uses of force will be reviewed.
For the SAPD that will mean reviewing the same kinds of video used in this case. There are multiple cameras throughout the building, officers are required to wear body cameras, and SAPD cruisers all have dash cameras.
“It’s important to have this footage. Otherwise, how would we know?” said Jay Diaz, staff attorney for the ACLU.
Diaz said he was “glad something has been done in the face of the brutality she experienced.”
One of his concerns, Diaz said, was that the SAPD leadership didn’t know of the incident until the ACLU requested the footage.
Told of the policy change, he said, “That’s excellent. I wish all departments would do that.”
Vermont does not require police departments to track or report on use of force incidents, and Diaz said there is often a “lack of community involvement and oversight.”
Lawton had been with the department for seven years. He was hired from Shelburne, where there had been a problem with a traffic stop, and Lawton was accused of perjuring himself. That incident, according to a motion to dismiss filed by Connelly’s attorney, led to a federal lawsuit and settlement.
Taylor said he did speak with the Shelburne chief before hiring Lawton. “It was my understanding this was more of a misunderstanding… than perjury,” said Taylor.
In his time at the SAPD, Lawton’s work, up until this incident, was “meritorious,” said Taylor.
That includes the non-fatal shooting of Jack Laplant in January 2018. Laplant was approaching the home of his estranged girlfriend in a residential neighborhood of the city while dressed all in black and carrying an assault rifle.
Laplant fired at police who responded to reports of his presence on Lincoln Avenue. Among the multiple charges he’s facing is attempted second degree murder for shooting at Wetherby.
Multiple officers fired at Laplant, but it was Lawton’s bullet which grazed his abdomen.
Vermont State Police investigated the shooting. No officers were charged in the incident. Laplant is awaiting trial.
Lawton will now be investigated again by VSP for what happened to Connelly.
Connelly’s attorney, Albert Fox of Chadwick and Spensley in Brattleboro, said that if Lawton is charged his client will testify.
“I certainly think it merits an investigation,” he said.
A lawsuit against the city is “on the table,” but the focus is on the criminal case against Connelly, Fox said.
She was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct, two counts of unlawful mischief, two counts of simple assault and resisting arrest. Connelly was initially arrested for an incident at Shooters in which she allegedly tore the owner’s shirt as he attempted to escort her from the premises for causing a disturbance.
Fox, who has filed a motion seeking the dismissal of all of the charges against Lawton, called the case “a total miscarriage of justice.”
Following the assault in the cell, Lawton was transported by ambulance to Northwestern Medical Center where, another officer reports, she was verbally abusive to the emergency room staff.
Connelly was then taken to the Chittenden County Correctional Facility and held on $2,500 bail.
This is only the second excessive use of force incident at the SAPD since Taylor took over 14 years ago.
“In both cases they were dealt with swiftly,” said Taylor. “In both cases they were rousted out of the department.”
Taylor said the incident is not reflective of his department overall. “I’m as proud of my officers as I’ve been of any men and women I’ve worked with in my life,” he said.
Citing an officer who recently paid for the groceries of a woman who had forgotten her debit card, which went viral on social media after she wrote about it, Taylor said, “That’s the moral fiber of this group.”
“We certainly regret what has happened to Mc. Connelly,” said city manager Dominic Cloud. “We’re ready to take responsibility for it.” Part of that responsibility included Lawton’s termination.
But what happened to Connelly isn’t the full story of the SAPD, according to Cloud, who called the assault “an outlier” that “doesn’t speak to the values of this department.”
“We’re a large organization with employees who interact with people at their darkest moments,” said Cloud. The SAPD has 30 officers and handles 12,000 incidents a year.
“Nobody in any organization can expect employees to be perfect,” said Cloud, but it can expect them to take responsibility for their actions.
Speaking of the officers’ work, he said, “I struggle to imagine a more intense workplace.”
“It’s the interpersonal intensity that makes it hard to be a police officer,” said Cloud.
But, he added, officers have a level of power which means they have to be held to a higher standard. “I think all of us who watched that video had the same reaction – the officer crossed the line.”
Officers above all, “have to be able to hold it together in an intense emotional situation,” said Cloud. “None of us are judged by how we handle things on our best day. We’re judged by how we handle things on our worst day.”
“I’m part of this community,” said Taylor, “so I’m personally offended when anything interferes with the trust we have with our community.”