One of two officers who stood by when former St. Albans Police Sgt. Jason Lawton punched a handcuffed woman in the face has resigned, according to Chief Gary Taylor.
Officer Michael Ferguson, who’d been on the force for about three months before the March incident, quit on June 4, one day after the police chief ordered an investigation of the incident. Lawton was put on administrative leave June 12 and fired on July 1.
An internal investigation of Officer Zachary Koch is expected to wrap up by the end of this week, Taylor said. He noted that Koch, who had about eight months on the force at the time of the incident, was “the least culpable of the three.”
Lawton was the shift supervisor on duty that night, but both junior officers violated departmental policies and procedures by not intervening during the beating or immediately reporting what had happened to another higher up, according to the police chief.
“In this case, I would say that Ferguson and Koch fell down in their responsibility to do that,” Taylor said. “I would hope that we would intervene, but even in cases where intervention doesn’t occur, I would expect an immediate notification or referral.”
Koch and Ferguson were both probationary officers, and Taylor said it's possible they were intimidated or scared about telling on their superior — though that's no excuse, he added.
“One doesn’t have to look at that situation very long to figure out it’s just wrong,” the chief said. Despite that, he said, “the only person whose actions I felt rose to the level of being criminal was Sgt. Lawton.”
The Vermont State Police has confirmed it’s investigating the incident.
“There are any number of things that happened that should not have happened, leading up to the actual assault and following that assault,” Taylor said, noting that he was restricted in saying much more because Lawton has appealed his termination through the police union.
At the time of his firing, Lawton was president of the St. Albans Police Benevolent Association. A call to its parent organization, the New England Police Benevolent Association, which represents the officers, was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Video of the beating was filed last week in court when attorneys for 35-year-old Amy Connelly asked a judge to throw out the three charges she’s facing. One accuses her of assaulting Lawton by kicking his shin.
In his report, Lawton said he “delivered a front distraction strike to the right side of her face in an effort to gain control of her. The strike had the desired effect, as it distracted her from her aggressive behavior.”
“Connelly’s kick caused me to have lingering discomfort on my right shin,” Lawton wrote. “At the time of the kick, it caused two out of ten pain.”
Taylor said departmental brass didn’t know about the punch Lawton landed until the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont requested video of the incident on May 23. In March, Lawton had filed what’s known as a “response to resistance” report, but it didn’t raise a red flag — though it should have, Taylor conceded.
“I think that we might have relied too heavily on trusting the self-reporter to properly describe what had happened,” the chief said.
To that end, the department instituted a new policy, effective June 24, that requires a command-level administrator to review all available evidence within 48 hours any time “an officer lays hands on [an arrestee] and they’re resisting.” There were 26 such incidents in St. Albans last year, Taylor said, adding that such a policy would likely have brought Lawton’s misdeeds to his attention sooner.
“I don’t want this to happen ever,” Taylor said. “But now that it has happened, we all need to learn a lesson here and make sure we set it up so it won’t happen again.”
Taylor said he's been summoned to appear before the St. Albans City Council on Monday to discuss the situation.