Three additional law enforcement officers have come forward reporting serious injuries sustained during training drills at the Vermont Police Academy, according to attorney Jerry O’Neill, who is representing a Burlington officer in a lawsuit against the academy.
VTDigger.org reported Monday that an investigation by the Burlington Police Department found that Officer Erin Bartle and two others sustained injuries such as concussions and hearing loss during an academy drill known as the “hitchhiker scenario.” A fourth officer was knocked unconscious. During the drill, instructors punched recruits in the head without warning. Bartle is suing the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which oversees the academy.
Since news of the lawsuit broke, O’Neill said, at least three more law enforcement officials have come forward. Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Poulin, 44, is one of them.
Poulin gave Seven Days the following account of what happened to him: He has a history of concussions and traumatic brain injuries, so he warned instructors before a training at the Washington County Sheriff's Office that a hit to the head could end his career. The instructors were certified by the Vermont Police Academy as use-of-force trainers.
They equipped Poulin with a foam helmet. A trainer role-played a hitchhiker with mental health issues on a roadside, and Poulin was tasked with confronting the man and diffusing the situation.
Poulin asked the "hitchhiker" for his ID. As the instructor handed it over, he struck Poulin in the temple so hard that Poulin suffered a concussion.
It happened on January 28, 2017. Poulin, who experienced daily migraines afterward, wasn't able to return to work until fall 2018 because the medications he took were too debilitating.
“There were points during my treatment where I couldn’t string two words together, the medication level was so high," Poulin said Friday.
What Poulin experienced was typical of the drill. Recruits were supposed to learn how to avoid surprise attacks and recover control of a situation when attacked.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said two sheriff's deputies contacted him Wednesday to say that they had suffered "career-altering injuries" from the hitchhiker training. He added that one of them "also made troubling allegations about attempts to gain an understanding from the police academy about what happened to them that were rebuffed, and I’ll be passing that information along to the academy and the state attorney general to assist in their internal investigation.”
Poulin was one of the deputies who contacted the chief. The other, who asked Seven Days that he not to be named for fear it could hurt his career in law enforcement, said the hitchhiker drill was a mandatory training for all full-time deputies in his department. He said he expected to receive instruction about how to handle the situation.
The deputy said he got a concussion and back injury and had to take a week off work. He said it didn't feel like a training.
"It felt more of a scheduled ass-kicking,” the deputy said.
Rich Gauthier, the executive director of the police academy, said Thursday that he wasn’t aware of the complaints from the additional officers, and took issue with del Pozo’s accusation that one of them was “rebuffed” after contacting the academy.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Gauthier said. “Does that mean that we refused to talk about it, that we refused to listen to their concerns? Because that doesn’t seem likely at all.”
Poulin said he hired a lawyer and tried to get more information from the police academy about how his injury had been allowed to happen. "I know that we requested training records and certifications and things and were told it’s not their problem," he said.
The academy's logic?
"The training didn’t happen on their grounds, so therefore it’s not their problem whether the instructor was certified or not," Poulin said.
Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, the chair of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, said in an emailed statement that the council is taking safety concerns seriously.
“As the oversight body of the Vermont Police Academy, the VCJTC is concerned when we receive a complaint from an agency regarding perceived training deficiencies or safety concerns,” Brickell wrote. “As such we have contracted with a firm with expertise to investigate this complaint as well as an overall review of our Use of Force training curriculum.”
Del Pozo first raised concerns with the council in May, and the council decided to review the training scenario. In October, del Pozo wrote to the group, which prompted them to launch an investigation.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan is on the council. He typically sends a designee to represent him, and a separate member of the AG’s staff serves as the legal counsel for the body, according to Assistant Attorney General Joshua Diamond.
Diamond said the attorney general was proactive in protecting police recruits.
“First and foremost, Attorney General Donovan personally, in October of this year, well before any type of [lawsuit] was filed, through his leadership and support facilitated the vote at the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council to conduct a retroactive investigation involving the hitchhiker drill,” Diamond said.
In his October letter to Brickell, del Pozo suggested the AG had a conflict of interest in the case because a member of his staff was one of the police academy instructors who allegedly injured recruits by punching them in the head.
“It is important for people to be able to conclude that this potential conflict of interest played no role in a decision about whether to conduct an internal investigation or not,” del Pozo wrote.
Diamond denied that there was a conflict.
“In state offices, state offices where there are attorneys general providing legal advice to the state, it is not infrequent where you have separate divisions doing separate work where there are effectively walls separating the two so that those conflicts are not in play,” he said, adding that the state occasionally brings in outside lawyers if a conflict of interest arises.
The Criminal Justice Training Council banned intentional blows to the head in June. Gauthier told Vermont Public Radio Monday that the hitchhiker drill has been suspended because of the recent media coverage. Recruits would no longer be surprised when an instructor attacked, Gauthier said, making the drill ineffective.
“It’s [the] same as if you took one of our criminal law quizzes and published [it],” Gauthier told VPR.
Gauthier also told VPR, and repeated in an interview with Seven Days, that no one had been disciplined at the academy in connection with the hitchhiker drill.
But documents obtained by Seven Days show that a Burlington police officer who was working at the academy as an observer was suspended as an instructor for failing to report excessive force. (Del Pozo said the officer was not suspended from the police department.)
When pressed, Gauthier confirmed the suspension. He noted that the Burlington police instructor did not express concerns about excessive force while observing the drill, but did later tell his department's investigators he was concerned about how hard recruits were hit.
“What I’m maintaining is that he had an obligation to report what he thought was excessive force and then let us look into it to see if it was,” Gauthier said.
Del Pozo, in an email to Gauthier, expressed concern that the suspension might be seen as retaliation against an instructor who came forward with concerns.
“The police academy suspended one of our officers from being an instructor because he told us he witnessed forceful blows to a recruit and didn’t report them to the academy first. But on the other hand, the academy didn’t think these blows merited an investigation on their part in the first place,” del Pozo said in an interview. “The director of the academy has told reporters there was never any discipline and there were never any forceful blows to begin with, only swats. If that is true, what did our officer see, and what was he disciplined for telling us rather than the academy about?”
Gauthier confirmed Thursday that none of the instructors who played the “hitchhiker” role have been disciplined.
In a statement Friday, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger called Gauthier's credibility into question.
“In his comments this week, Gauthier has continued to defend a violent training practice that has resulted in serious injury to multiple trainees, and that is not, to our knowledge, used by any other police academy,” Weinberger said. “I am thankful for Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo’s persistent leadership over the last year to protect not only Burlington’s police officers, but all those across the state who are participating in Vermont Policy Academy training. ”