New Details Lead Some to Question Probe of Burlington Deputy Police Chief | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Details Lead Some to Question Probe of Burlington Deputy Police Chief


Published February 4, 2020 at 8:05 p.m.
Updated February 5, 2020 at 10:14 a.m.

Deputy Chief Jan Wright - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Deputy Chief Jan Wright

An internal investigation into Burlington Police Deputy Chief Jan Wright's social media use did not disclose dozens of comments she'd made anonymously, prompting some city officials to question the thoroughness of the probe.

Among those calling for a fuller accounting are several Progressive city councilors, members of the Burlington Police Commission and a state representative from the Queen City who wants to know, "What more is out there?"

"There's not a lot of belief or confidence that this was just some isolated incident," said Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington), a former city councilor.

Indeed, Wright has used aliases on the internet since at least 2015, when she created the Twitter handle @honeybadger159. The city did not include that account in its probe because, officials said, she didn't use it to bash others.

Yet Wright did use at least two other pseudonyms, according to the city, which documented 19 instances in which the deputy chief acted inappropriately online. Alternately portraying herself as "Abby Sykes" and "Lori Spicer" — sometimes on the same comment thread — Wright would pick fights with others, defend police tactics and savage the news media.

Some 40 additional posts, first uncovered by last week, show that Wright expressed herself without inhibition under the cloak of anonymity.

In one instance last year, Wright derided University of Vermont economics professor Stephanie Seguino, who studies racial disparities in police traffic stops. In another, the deputy chief anonymously complained about the racial makeup of the civilian board that oversees the city police department.

"The commission is now 6/7th black. Is this representative of the Burlington community?" Wright wrote last June using the Sykes account, commenting on a Seven Days story posted to Facebook.

Burlington Human Resources director Deanna Paluba, who conducted the internal investigation with the City Attorney's Office, defended the limited scope of the probe. The city stopped searching for Wright's anonymous posts once officials determined that the deputy chief had violated city policy.

"We needed to move forward," Paluba said. The HR director was reluctant to commit to further investigation "without new or different information."

"We do all have other jobs to do," she said.

That's not good enough for Jabulani Gamache, a member of the city police commission. While he believes Wright is remorseful, the city's failure to hire an outside investigator has created "an optics problem," he said.

"I think the public does have a right to know: How much deeper does this go?" asked Gamache.

Complicating matters is the fact that Wright wasn't the sole Burlington police official misusing social media. Last July, then-chief Brandon del Pozo created an anonymous Twitter account, @WinkleWatchers, and sent several tweets to troll police department critic Charles Winkleman before deleting the account. When Seven Days asked del Pozo about the handle, he lied and said it wasn't his. But in December, the chief admitted what he had done and resigned days later.

Jabulani Gamache - COURTNEY LAMDIN
  • Courtney Lamdin
  • Jabulani Gamache

At that time, Mayor Miro Weinberger vowed to implement policies to govern employees' online behavior, which the city has never had. To that end, Weinberger retained "workplace expert" Anita Tinney, a $200-an-hour consultant from the Philadelphia-area Employee and Labor Relations Academy. Wanting an "outside set of eyes," Paluba asked Tinney to review the Wright report before it was made public. The consultant has no written contract, but her scope of work includes a promise to perform social media training.

Tinney has already weighed in on the city's draft social media policy and has been paid $1,900 for her efforts to date.

City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) worries the city won't be able to move on from the controversy without a full accounting of what happened. Two top police officials anonymously used social media to harass members of the public, and yet the city's internal investigation was "the bare minimum," he said.

Wright had sent him and Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) "friend" requests from her Spicer Facebook account. Wright also misled Freeman when the councilor asked Spicer whom she really was.

Neither city councilor was interviewed about their interactions with Wright's anonymous accounts, nor were others she trolled online. Talking to the people affected, Hanson said, is "standard procedure for an investigation."

Weinberger did not respond to interview requests regarding the recently disclosed posts, but he initially told Seven Days that he thought Paluba's report had been thorough.

"Nothing that I read in the investigation makes me think that there's a need for further work," he said on January 27, lauding the police department for releasing the full investigative summary.

"The public is aware of everything we're aware of with respect to Chief Wright's posts," the mayor continued. "I hope that having such a fulsome report will allow the public to fully assess what happened."

Paluba defended her investigatory methods, which relied on reviewing posts that Wright made on the social media accounts that Wright and her attorney provided to the city. That review was stifled, in part, when Wright told investigators she'd forgotten the password for her Sykes account and couldn't log in to the Spicer one.

"I investigated based on the evidence that I had in front of me," Paluba said.

City Attorney Eileen Blackwood confirmed that the city opted not to search every comment thread on Facebook.

"You can either keep going and spend a lot more time looking further, or you can decide we're going to stop," she said. "As we put in the report, this was with the knowledge that it's very possible that something more could come out in the future, and that's where we are."

Last week, Seven Days performed a search similar to VTDigger's and located 22 more online posts by Wright that the city did not include in its report. In one from June 2019, Wright defended the lack of diversity among city leadership by commenting on a Seven Days story about the issue.

"Seven Days - how racially diverse is your staff?" Wright wrote. "Last I checked, your writing staff is like winter in Vermont."

Seven Days' review also found that Wright appears to have registered a commenting account on the newspaper's website under the Spicer alias in 2017. She made two relatively benign comments then and hasn't been active since.

"Clearly the activity was more widespread than the report indicated," said Hanson, the city councilor. "Those are important pieces to include in the investigation."

The city did review the 1,023 tweets Wright sent using her @honeybadger159 account, Blackwood said; none were problematic, she added, and they did not relate to city or police department business. Wright's badge number is 159, while "honey badger" appears to be a reference to a popular internet meme.

Seven Days could not independently verify Blackwood's assertion because the account's profile and tweets were blocked from public view. But both Interim Police Chief Jennifer Morrison and Deputy Chief Jon Murad have interacted with @honeybadger159 online, and each acknowledged last week that they knew the person operating the account.

"That's not in that report?" Murad asked of the @honeybadger159 handle, referring to the city's investigation.

Last April, Wright used the account to respond to a private message sent by @OneNorthAvenue, the handle for the police department's Twitter account that del Pozo operated for much of his tenure. The city withheld the messages in response to a Seven Days public records request. It was the only fully redacted exchange of 19 involving the @OneNorthAvenue account.

"On this short notice, we are not prepared to change the decision to redact," Blackwood wrote in an email last Friday in response to a request from Seven Days to review the message.

Morrison has pledged to review Wright's newly revealed public posts. But the interim chief hasn't committed to reopening the investigation or altering her decision on Wright's status with the department. The deputy chief is back on the job, but she will lose five vacation days and must serve three additional days of unpaid suspension. Wright, who joined the force in 2001, must also undergo a restorative justice process with some of those with whom she interacted anonymously online. The deputy chief is also temporarily prohibited from speaking "publicly on behalf of the Department," according to Morrison's memo. Wright declined to comment for this story.

"The nature of social media is that you will never know if you have it all," Morrison said in an interview. "It's my hope that whatever we can find can be reviewed, and then appropriate next steps will be decided."

City Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) said the community needs to consider what reopening the investigation would accomplish, though he's amenable to the conversation.

"Repairing public trust needs to be at the center of anything that we're thinking about," Roof said. "We also have to remember Jan Wright is a person who has dedicated a lot of her life to our community, as well. A balance is hard to strike in these situations."

Burlington Police Commission member Mark Hughes, however, thinks trust can only be rebuilt by going back to the start. The mayor's handling of the del Pozo imbroglio was poor at best, Hughes charged. Until the public has a complete account of the scandal, the Wright probe is merely a distraction, he said.

"All of this stuff is going to continue to dribble out," Hughes said. "It's going to make us all look like bozos."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Search Warranted? | Burlington's investigation into deputy police chief's online misconduct falls short, critics say"