ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) Police brutality is a powder keg issue across the country. Here in Vermont we heard from a tearful mom who claims she has a case.
St. Albans mom Marlene Lambert says this police body camera video breaks her heart. "You don't beat kids like that," she said.
Lambert gave WCAX permission to show the police body camera video of her son, DJ, being arrested. The 15 year-old is accused of punching a store clerk who was trying to stop him from stealing drinks.
DJ was already pinned to the ground when police arrived. "Roll on your stomach. Relax, relax buddy. Stop resisting," says one police officer.
We count five punches in the video. Then this -- "the next one will be in your face," says the officer.
The cop's partner has a different plan to get DJ in cuffs. "This is going to suck," he says, as he shocks DJ with a Taser.
The technique is called "drive stunning." It causes significant pain where the Taser touches skin, but usually gets instant compliance. In DJ's case it works. Less than two minutes after police enter the mini-mart, the teenager is in custody.
"I didn't feel like I was putting up a fight or anything," DJ tells the officers on the video. Out in the police car he starts slurring. "Do you want to know what I took?"
That's when the officers discover that DJ swallowed a dangerous cocktail of meds before entering the store and needs urgent medical attention.
"I want justice for my son," Lambert said. She filed a complaint against the officers alleging police brutality. She says in some instances she believes in the use of force, but that in her son's case it went too far. "They were dealing with a 15 year-old boy who was highly intoxicated on drugs and didn't know what he was doing."
We wanted to view the body camera video with St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor and talk to him about his officers' tactics and behaviors. He wouldn't talk to us on camera and had City Manager Dominic Cloud provide a statement. It says in part, "...the St. Albans Police Department has found the officers used appropriate control and restraint techniques in accordance with their training..."
"I have seen the body camera video in this case," Cloud said. Cloud wouldn't comment about the officers' actions, so we consulted the police department's policy, which says:
"...officers will use only reasonable force to bring an incident under control."
It says they must consider the crime and the dangerousness of the offender. They can't shock people passively resisting arrest, but are encouraged to use the device's stun mode on people who are actively resisting arrest.
"I ask the public to imagine themselves in that situation when they are rolling up to a scene and they've got many competing priorities at hand. How do they make everyone as safe as possible as quick as possible?" Cloud said.
We asked a half-dozen Vermont cops for their opinions. Most agreed DJ was actively resisting arrest and justified the officers' use of force, especially since neither knew if DJ had weapon. But a few cops questioned the need for the punches. They say those strikes are meant to stun a person into compliance, but they don't always work and can sometimes aggravate the situation. The officers we interviewed actually preferred the drive stun because the pain is fleeting and the chance for lasting injury is lower.
"At this point it sounds like the chief is doing what he needs to do to manage his people," Cloud said.
Chief Gary Taylor said on the phone that he stands behind his officers, but admits he had two concerns after watching the video: a warning should have preceded the first punch. And the officer's threat that "the next one will be in your face" was completely inappropriate.
"It just doesn't seem right," Lambert said. DJ's mother may not get what she's looking for. The chief did address his concerns with his officers, but neither cop faced any disciplinary action.
Lambert's son was charged as a juvenile with assault and robbery. He spent six days in the hospital because of the meds he swallowed. He does not remember anything from that night.
City records in St. Albans show police used their stun guns four times so far this year and 10 times last year.