St. Albans police officer fired for punching handcuffed woman

Published: Aug. 6, 2019 at 4:59 PM EDT
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A handcuffed woman was left with a black eye after she got punched in the face. And the man accused of punching her is a St. Albans police officer. Our Darren Perron has the story.

Amy Connelly, 35, found herself locked in a holding cell at the St. Albans Police Department in March.

Connelly was allegedly drunk when she ripped a man's shirt at a bar earlier that night. Police arrested her after she refused to leave Shooters Saloon and brought her to the station, accused of disorderly conduct.

That's when things took a turn that's hard to watch.

Police say the Highgate woman refused to stop kicking the door to her cell and things got ugly.

Video shows Sgt. Jason Lawton shove Connelly against a wall after she refuses to sit down. She stands back up and allegedly kicks-- or tries to kick-- the sergeant, who responds by punching the handcuffed woman in the face.

It was all caught on the officer's body camera video and on surveillance cameras obtained by WCAX News.

In court paperwork, Lawton said the strike to the face was to gain control of the situation and ended her aggressive behavior.

But the ACLU of Vermont says it's police brutality, plain and simple.

"He is a bully to a young woman who is distraught, who has handcuffs behind her back, in a three by three holding cell and it's beyond the pale," said Jay Diaz of the ACLU of Vermont.

The ACLU requested the video from the March 14 incident. And Diaz points out it's not the first time Lawton's actions have been called into question.

"He is clearly an officer who should not have been a police officer because of how he behaves," Diaz said. "It's readily apparent."

Lawton allegedly lied about a traffic stop in 2013 when he worked for the Shelburne Police Department, claiming a driver ran a red light. The cruiser cam video showed differently. The police department settled a suit over it.

Lawton then moved to St. Albans.

In 2018, he was one of two St. Albans officers involved in shooting an armed suspect who allegedly pointed a gun at them. The suspect claimed he fired into the air so police would kill him. An officer's bullet grazed the suspect. He survived.

"We did make a decision to hire him. I own that," St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said.

Taylor admits he knew about the botched traffic stop in Shelburne but says he didn't know it rose to the level of perjury. He thought it was a misunderstanding before he hired Lawton. And during Lawton's time in St. Albans, he even earned a promotion.

But the chief says if he had known Lawton's history and knew he could lose his cool like this, he would never have hired him.

"I've been doing this for 44 years. I don't approve of anything like that. Nobody gets to engage in behavior that's abusive," Taylor said. "I don't want people to think that behavior reflects the values of this organization. It does not."

The chief says he never saw the video until the request by the ACLU. Once he did, he ordered an internal review.

WCAX News has confirmed it is now being investigated by the Vermont State Police and the attorney general's office.

Lawton was fired from his job in St. Albans.

"Once you look into it and watch the video, I think the video is self-explanatory," Taylor said. "If you shouldn't be wearing a badge and a gun, part of my job is to make sure you're not."

Criminal charges against Connelly are still pending but her lawyer tells WCAX they are trying to get those dismissed and they are considering a civil suit against the police department.

Sgt. Lawton is appealing his termination.