Vermont State Police Discriminated Against Black Woman Who Runs Clemmons Family Farm, Commission Says | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont State Police Discriminated Against Black Woman Who Runs Clemmons Family Farm, Commission Says

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Clemmons Family Farm in 2017 - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Clemmons Family Farm in 2017

In an unpublished report, the Vermont Human Rights Commission has found reasonable grounds to believe the Vermont State Police discriminated against Lydia Clemmons, a Black woman who is a member of the prominent Charlotte family that owns and runs the historic Clemmons Family Farm.

In bluntly worded findings, the commission's investigation concluded that the state police in 2017 allowed a tenant of the farm to "prey on Dr. Clemmons and terrorize her and her family and destroy a building on one of the few African American farms left in Vermont."

"This case illustrates why people of color and women fear turning to the police, and distrust government agencies of all kinds," concludes the report, completed in November 2020 by commission investigator Nelson Campbell, a lawyer.

Campbell recommended the commission find that police discriminated against Clemmons on the basis of both her race and gender. Five commissioners voted unanimously to support those findings on March 25, records obtained by Seven Days show.

Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling acknowledged "imperfections" in the police response, but in an interview on Monday, he took issue with the finding that troopers, who are responsible for policing Charlotte, displayed bias. "I think that the report by the HRC takes significant liberties with the facts to interpret them in the light least favorable to the responding troopers in an unfair way," he said in an interview.

Former Vermont legislator Kiah Morris told Seven Days that she was handling media relations for the farm on the matter. She said on Tuesday that the family plans to hold a press conference on Monday, June 28.

Clemmons had requested the report not be made public, according to a memo Seven Days obtained through a public records request. Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie (D-Hartford), the chair of the commission, said the family was concerned about reactions to the report from both the general public and the former tenant.

The commission was acting on a complaint from Clemmons that the state police had discriminated against her when she repeatedly called them to handle problems involving the tenant. She was a witness in a criminal case involving the man. She reported he repeatedly vandalized a historic farm building, violated court-ordered conditions of release, and left firearms and axes around a building on the property. He also kept urine in bottles, causing her to worry he might be manufacturing explosives. Clemmons was so anxious that she hired Chocolate Thunder, a Black-owned private security firm, to keep an eye on the tenant.

The Human Rights Commission's report was never made public and does not appear on the public body's website. Seven Days requested the report on June 10, and commission staff emailed it that day.

Bor Yang, executive director of the commission, acknowledged in an email that reports become public documents when the commission determines reasonable grounds exist to believe discrimination occurred.

"That report is made available to the public upon request but there is no obligation on the HRC's part to post anything on our website or to otherwise announce the decision," she wrote. "A decision was made to not post this report on our website but to make it available upon request. The basis for that decision was discussed in executive session."

From the time the determination was made in March, Yang wrote, the commission has six months to attempt to negotiate a legal settlement with the state police. If one is not reached, the commission has the option to sue on Clemmons' and the public's behalf.

"We are still in the negotiations phase and so I will not be providing further comment on the case," she wrote.

The Vermont Human Rights Commission is charged with enforcing the state's civil rights laws. Its staff investigates and reports on allegations of discrimination, and it can also file civil lawsuits for Vermonters whom it believes have been wronged.

This particular report, regarding Vermont's largest police agency, lands in the midst of a national reckoning on policing and race. Even before a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Pew Research Center poll found that 84 percent of Black adults and 63 percent of white adults felt police treat Black people less fairly.

In a memo that Seven Days obtained through a records request, Commissioner Schirling called the decision not to make the report public "deeply troubling." In contesting the report, Schirling noted that Campbell, the commission's investigator, wrote last summer that the facts did not support a finding of discrimination. The final report said otherwise.

Yang said that it is "not unusual for a staff attorney to sway back and forth as they consider new and evolving evidence in a case."

'We Will Never Forget This'

A display about the Clemmons Family Farm at ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain as part of Burlington's Juneteenth celebration - MATTHEW ROY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Roy ©️ Seven Days
  • A display about the Clemmons Family Farm at ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain as part of Burlington's Juneteenth celebration

The 148-acre Clemmons Family Farm was purchased in 1962 by Lydia Clemmons' parents. The property, long used to promote Black culture, is a stop on the state's African American Heritage Trail and frequently hosts cultural events, such as the Juneteenth celebration held last weekend.

The events that ultimately led to the complaint began in 2017, when Clemmons met Gregory "Grey" Barreda. He was a shepherd looking for land to graze his sheep on, he told her, and the Clemmons family wanted to bring livestock to the property once again. The family agreed to let him rent a room in what's known as the Barn House — a cultural gathering space, art gallery and retreat center on the farm.

However, the commission's report says, Barreda "was not a shepherd and had no sheep." He paid Clemmons a $1,000 damage deposit in silver coins. Fearing they were stolen, she reported him to police. Barreda was charged with stealing nearly $30,000 worth of coins from a previous landlord, in Windsor County.

Barreda was freed with court-ordered conditions of release and continued to live in a building on the Clemmons property while his felony case was pending. From September through December 2017, according to the commission's report, Barreda damaged the historic Barn House, ventured into parts of the property where he was not allowed and otherwise antagonized the Clemmons family. Lydia Clemmons repeatedly called state police at the Williston barracks for help, but they did not handle the situation effectively, the report says.

"From the time of his release in September [2017], until he was eventually ordered by Judge Robert Mello to vacate the Clemmons Family Farm on December 28, 2017, Barreda terrorized Dr. Clemmons and her family and engaged in retaliation by committing acts of extensive property damage," the report states.

The Clemmons family was out $70,000 in damage, legal fees and other expenses, the report says. Lydia Clemmons emailed the commission investigator in October 2018, writing that the state police response had been devastating.

"[T]he VSP stood by, crossed their arms, and watched us live in hell for nearly 3 full months," she wrote. "The VSP's conduct is far more painful, more humiliating and more haunting to us than anything Barreda ever did to us. Barreda was never sworn to a duty to uphold the law and protect us. We also never paid him to work for us. The VSP troopers, however, are sworn to uphold the law and to protect us, and they are paid by our taxes to do their jobs."

She added, "As if our lives, our property, our business and our long-standing position in this state and in our local community meant less than nothing. We will never forget this, and we will never, ever get over this."

Had her family been white, Clemmons contended, the authorities would have removed Barreda immediately from the family farm.

Reasonable Grounds

The 98-page report details each interaction between Clemmons, who is the farm's director, and police, using records including police bodycam footage, written reports and emails. Clemmons lived in a building on the Charlotte property with her parents, who are in their nineties.

One incident of particular note occurred in October 2017, when members of the public were due at the farm for an event. Clemmons and her brother encountered Barreda in his underwear in a kitchen by the event space. His belongings, including dirty laundry, machetes and knives, were strewn about the event space and the kitchen. He was refusing to leave.

Clemmons called 911 and reported that Barreda was within 300 feet of her, in violation of his conditions of release, and was harassing her. Barreda, who had access to the kitchen as a tenant, called 911, as well, and said Clemmons was moving his belongings.

State police Cpl. Andrew Leise arrived. In under a minute, according to the report, he accused Clemmons of nullifying the court-ordered conditions of release by "coming to her place of business and being within 300 feet of Barreda, despite the fact that she was under no legal restraint that prohibited her from coming to her place of business."

Investigator Campbell reviewed dashcam and bodycam footage. She wrote that Leise's initial tone toward Clemmons and her brother was "alternately impatient, brusque, accusatory and confrontational peppered with occasional perfunctory politeness."

Leise stayed for an hour and helped Barreda move his belongings. He also "coached Barreda about what to put in his statement" to police, the report says, and thanked him for being a "gentleman." Leise later informed the Williston barracks in an email that, because Clemmons' guests began arriving a half hour later than she said they were due, he doubted her honesty.

Clemmons later asked Maeve Eberhardt, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Vermont, to analyze the interaction. Eberhardt opined, "In short, the differential positioning of GB [Grey Barreda], a man who presents as White, and LC [Lydia Clemmons], a woman who presents as African American, reflects the systemic racism and implicit racial bias that characterize institutions in the United States," the report states.

When Seven Days asked Schirling about the incident, he indicated that police will sometimes "schmooze" with people who are being difficult in an attempt to get them to comply with instructions and to "de-escalate" situations, describing that as a "technique."

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Barreda said he was unaware of the Human Rights Commission report. He said that he was surprised to hear an official finding that he got preferential treatment from police during his time on the farm, saying that police had accosted him there in the dead of night. He described his ethnicity as "Latinx and Indigenous."

The Clemmons report echoes complaints that Kiah Morris made regarding the Bennington Police Department. The former legislator, who is Black, contended that the department failed to protect her from racists after she supported gun safety legislation. She was trolled online; her family reported suspected intruders in their home. The harassment got so bad that Morris, the only Black woman in the Vermont legislature, withdrew from a race for another term, and her family moved away from Bennington.

Morris complained to the Human Rights Commission, and Campbell also wrote the report on her case. But unlike the Clemmons' report, it was not presented to commissioners for a vote; instead, the Town of Bennington settled with Morris and her husband, James Lawton, for $137,500. As part of the settlement, the town formally apologized to Morris' family during a selectboard meeting on April 26.

According to the investigative report in Clemmons' case, the officers who responded to her calls did sometimes charge Barreda with violating the conditions of his release. But they often declined to charge him with other crimes he may have committed, and in some instances didn't respond to the farm at all, the investigator found.

On December 28, 2017, Superior Court Judge Robert Mello ordered Barreda to leave the farm. Mello cited Barreda's "display of the axes and the firearms in the farmhouse, in places that were clearly beyond the scope of what Mr. Barreda was renting," and said that Barreda's actions, including vandalism, had been in retaliation for Clemmons reporting the stolen coins to the police. A reasonable person would have considered Barreda's conduct threatening, the judge wrote, and he issued a one-year no-stalking order. Judge Helen Toor later tacked on three more years to the order.

According to the commission report, Barreda had mental health problems and was found incompetent to stand trial on both the theft charges and those relating to the Clemmons farm. The charges were dismissed.

In July 2020, roughly four months before she submitted her final report to the Human Rights Commission, investigator Campbell wrote in a memo that state police could have handled the case better, but that there was "insufficient evidence to support the existing legal standard" that police discriminated against Clemmons.

In her final report, Campbell acknowledged her changing viewpoint.

"This investigator's own perspective shifted over almost three years as the evidence kept coming in — from sympathy for the Clemmons, to an acceptance of VSP's defenses, then finally, back to a recommendation of reasonable grounds," she wrote, a reference to the finding that reasonable grounds exist to believe police discriminated against Clemmons.

Schirling said the turnaround was a shock to police. He met with the chair of the commission, Christie, in April to express concerns about how the case had been handled, he said.

In a footnote in the final report, Campbell noted something else that occurred during those months in 2020, while her thinking was apparently evolving. "The [state police's] public actions since this complaint continue to reflect a lack of understanding about discrimination based on sex, race and color," she wrote. She cited a post last September that appeared on the state police Facebook page picturing troopers at attention and quoting the Patti Smith song "Because the Night": "They can't hurt you now ... because the night belongs to us."

The post appeared the very day authorities announced that no police officers would be charged in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. Public criticism came swiftly, and state police took down the post. The police apologized, noting that the message had been "especially inappropriate given the timing."

"We hope the community would know it was not our intention to cause pain, to wound," the apology continued. "We do not feel that to be our job."

Editors' note

Seven Days obtained the Vermont Human Rights Commission report that prompted this story on June 10, three months after the commission voted on it. Several members of the public subsequently contacted us to express worry that writing about the report could endanger the Clemmons family. Seven Days news editors discussed those concerns. We also consulted with Kathleen Culver, the director for the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

For the sake of transparency, we want to publicly note the factors that influenced our decision to publish a story two weeks after obtaining the report. Those include the newsworthiness of the story and the fact that it involves a public report prepared by a public body that raises concerns about the Vermont State Police — at a time when Vermonters are engaged in vigorous discussions and debate about systemic racism.

Read the full report below:

The original print version of this article was headlined "Biased Badges?"