You may have heard about the nearly $1 million lawsuit the city of Rutland settled in December with a former police officer.
The officer had alleged his colleagues on the police force engaged in racial discrimination and multiple instances of improper conduct. Although they weren’t charged with any crimes, the civil settlement certainly was damning. But did you know that Vermont law allowed the accused officers to keep their police certification?
Sergeant John Johnson had retired and officer Earl “Frank” Post had already resigned from the Rutland Police Department by the time the city settled the lawsuit against them for $1 million.
The allegations were raised by former colleague Andrew Todd. In documents filed in the case, Todd said his colleagues had repeatedly used racial slurs against him and threatened him physically. Todd also alleged that the Rutland cops engaged in racial profiling and that the officers would sometimes get drunk or have sex while on duty.
Despite the severity of these accusations, Johnson and Post walked away from their jobs with their police certification intact. That’s because, in Vermont, it’s really hard to lose your right to wear a badge.
“The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which certifies law enforcement officers in Vermont currently has a mechanism to de-certify,” said Colonel Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police. “It’s at a high bar though, it’s for a felony conviction.”
Felonies are the most serious crimes. Meanwhile, an officer in Vermont can actually be convicted of a misdemeanor — for example, reckless endangerment — and stay certified, even keep his or her job.
And even if they lose their jobs, says Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont, “They can go down the road, and as long as they’re still certified, they can continue to be an officer in Vermont.”
Gilbert says there’s a long history of this happening, but the state doesn’t need to allow it. “It’s something that can easily be stopped by better tracking of officers that have been accused and been found to have engaged in unprofessional conduct,” he said.
It’s hard to say whether this would have stopped the officers from Rutland. The internal investigation that came before the big settlement did find evidence they practiced racial profiling, but not that any crimes were committed.
Neither man could be reached for this story, and neither are known to have gone on to other jobs in the profession.
But Caledonia Senator Joe Benning says the Rutland case brought this issue to the surface. Benning is one of a group of lawmakers trying to sharpen the state’s teeth when it comes to dealing with bad cops.
“I think until you have a horrific case of some kind, people aren’t really going to be paying attention that much. But once you have one of those cases, it becomes real high on everyone’s priority list,” Benning said. “And that just so happens to be that’s exactly what’s going on here. So suddenly we’ve recognized there’s a problem that needs to be addressed and we’re doing our best to get it underway.”
A bill that would make it easier for the state to de-certify police officers in cases of misconduct — even if they’re not convicted of a crime — is likely to move to the Senate floor for a vote in the next several days.
Clarification 2:56 p.m. This post was updated to include information from the internal investigation of the Rutland police department that found the two officers did engage in racial profiling.