Police policies questioned after cop punches handcuffed suspect

Published: Aug. 7, 2019 at 5:51 PM EDT
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WCAX News is taking a closer look at police policies after a St. Albans officer was fired for punching a handcuffed woman.

St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor told our Dom Amato one of their policies has changed since the incident, and now we're also learning more about the other police officers caught on camera in that video.

Every new law enforcement officer in Vermont undergoes training at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. The executive director of that academy does not condone what he calls a blue wall of silence where officers may not speak out about questionable behavior by another officer but he acknowledges it exists.

"Agency culture rules everything," said Richard Gauthier, the executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which operates the Vermont Police Academy.

Gauthier says they teach incoming officers the importance of ethical conduct, professionalism and integrity.

"It starts on day one," he said.

But once they leave the academy, it's up to the agencies to ensure officers are performing properly.

"An agency policy should be pretty clear with regards to what the expectations are of officers who witness other officers engaging in any kind of questionable conduct," Gauthier said.

Questionable conduct like back in March, when St. Albans Police Sgt. Jason Lawton was caught on camera punching a handcuffed Amy Connelly in a holding cell with two other officers present.

"Since this happened, we've revised our practice, our policy," Chief Taylor said.

Taylor says they have changed how they review the response to resistance incidents. Rather than just reading the form written by the officer involved, a shift supervisor will now inspect all audio and video evidence within 48 hours.

"I don't want people to think that that behavior reflects the values of this organization. It does not," Taylor said.

The two other officers you see in the video are Zachary Koch and Michael Ferguson.

There is an investigation underway into Koch's failure to report Lawton's behavior. That's expected to wrap up this week.

As for Ferguson, he resigned after the chief told him he would be fired. Ferguson is now a deputy sheriff with the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.

Gauthier says the blue wall of silence shouldn't be supported by law enforcement leaders or the rank and file.

"Could there be agencies where this is supported in the informal culture? Sure, because you have always had those overlapping each other," Gauthier said.

Taylor says he doesn't approve of what he saw in the video and will continue to take the necessary steps to maintain the public's trust in his department.

"I regret that any of this happened," he said, "but we will do the things we have to do to make sure that we prevent it from happening again in the future."

Lawton is appealing his termination.

The lawyer for Amy Connelly, the woman punched in the video, says she is relieved to see this injustice exposed.