A former Shelburne police officer and recent St. Albans sergeant has been fired following an internal investigation that supported excessive use of force allegations against him.
In video footage, Sgt. Jason Lawton can be seen punching a handcuffed woman in the face.
The woman, Amy Connelly, 35, of Highgate, was arrested on March 14 after she “drunkenly ripped a man’s shirt” inside Shooters Saloon in St. Albans, according to a press release issued by St. Albans police Department on Monday.
In video footage released to media outlets, Connelly sits in a holding cell with her hands cuffed behind her back. She kicks the cell door until Lawton opens it and says, “Listen to me, don’t kick my door.”
Connelly replies, “No” and stands up. Lawton then shoves her back onto the bench.
“How [expletive] dare you,” Connelly says. Lawton then tells her to “shut up.” Connelly stands up again and appears to try and kick the officer. Lawton shoves her back onto the bench, this time punching her in the face. Joined by another officer, Lawton then holds Connelly on the ground.
“You [expletive] kicked me,” Lawton says to Connelly. “That was real stupid, real stupid, okay?” adding she will be charged with assault and sent to jail.
“You guys are brutes,” Connelly later says. “You guys are animals.”
On May 23, a records request from the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was made to the department concerning the incident.
But regardless of who made the request, St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said in an interview Wednesday that he’d have acted as soon as he saw the video. Indeed, when the video was brought to his attention, Taylor launched an internal investigation regarding excessive use of force on June 3. Nine days later, Lawton was placed on paid administrative leave. It had to be paid leave due to new process requirements from collective bargaining, Taylor said. The investigation substantiated the allegations against Lawton, leading to his dismissal on July 1.
Incident leads to policy change
Taylor said that Lawton’s actions were not in keeping with department values.
“There are 30 officers here, and his actions do not reflect the values of police officers employed here or the organization,” Taylor said.
According to Taylor, like many police departments, St. Albans used a self-reporting model for use-of-force instances. Under this model, the shift supervisor alerts the chief of any force used by an officer on another individual.
“Here’s a lesson learned,” Taylor said. “Not foreseeing that a supervisor, a sergeant, could be the one [to use force].”
On June 24, the department enacted a new policy which states that physical exchanges between an officer and an individual must be reviewed and brought to the chief’s attention within 48 hours. Ideally that information is discussed sooner, but the 48 hours allows for an incident occurring on a Friday to be reviewed on a Monday, Taylor said.
“As a police chief and leader of the St. Albans Police Department, we strive to always do the right thing, in every instance,” Taylor wrote in a press release. “Just as we swear an oath to serve and protect we must never forsake those whom we are entrusted to protect. That includes individuals that we arrest.”
Requests for comment from Amy Connelly and the Vermont ACLU were not returned by the Shelburne News’ deadline.
Lawton was employed by the Shelburne Police Department from March 2011 until September 2014, when he left to join the St. Albans Police. In 2012, Lawton pulled a man over in Shelburne for running a red light and issued him a ticket, but the driver, Rod MacIver, contested the case in court. Lawton testified under oath that MacIver ran the light, but his dashcam video showed the MacIver had gone through a yellow light, not a red light. The judge threw out the case. MacIver later sued the department and in 2014 received $25,000 as part of a settlement.
Taylor said he didn’t know the full extent of the 2012 incident when he hired Lawton.
“We were aware that there had been some controversy,” Taylor said. “Had I seen that [dashcam video] before he was hired, he would not have been hired.”
“I’ve been around a lot longer than [dashcam] video,” he said, adding in his experience disputes between motorists and officers on running red and yellow lights are not uncommon.
Indeed, Taylor said he was led to believe the incident was a dispute between the motorist and Lawton.
“Obviously since then, I’ve learned different,” he said.
But Taylor added that the department is a large operation and he does not conduct all the background investigations on applicants.
Overall, Taylor wants the public and the media to know that Lawton’s alleged actions have no place in his department.
“We are not responsible for issuing punishment or allowing our emotions to dictate our actions. We must remain above that,” Taylor wrote in a press release. “The officer’s actions in this case are a poor reflection of the values of the men and women of the St. Albans Police Department, who work tirelessly to serve and protect this community.”