This is a letter that I read to the Selectboard. Please read and consider the support of this proposal for our town. Police accountability and transparency must be how we move forward and unite as a town. Thanks so much and stay safe!
Good evening, Selectboard and community members. My name is Leslie Thorsen, and I am here tonight to comment on a way to move forward with the Chester Police Policy and Procedures, and to make those available to the public. As was noted in the minutes of the last Selectboard meeting, the current Chester Police Policy and Procedures are being passed up to Trevor Whipple, a former Chief of Police, now employed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. I want to remind the citizens of our town that the VLCT is a member organization whose main focus is to prevent lawsuits against municipalities. The executive director of VLCT is a lawyer, and there are many lawyers on the staff. This is not a citizen rights organization. Trevor Whipple has a long history of law enforcement.
This past year the governor of our state passed an executive order which states: “On or before December 1, 2020, the Commissioner of DPS, in consultation with the Office of Attorney General’s Division of Human Rights, and community representatives, shall recommend to the Governor one or more models of civilian oversight of law enforcement and develop a statutory framework for the consideration of the Governor. Any such statutory framework shall include provisions designed to create a civilian oversight board.”
Based on this executive order, and a state law I will refer to in a moment, I am coming to the Selectboard tonight to propose the creation of a police oversight advisory board. The purpose would be to review the policies and procedures, and to make sure that the citizens of our town have input and oversight. This is particularly important now as the new facility is going to have a holding cell. At the present time there are no state laws that pertain to a holding cell. There must be local policy and procedures for the use of this cell. Why and how long will a person be in there, what if there is a medical emergency, who will be available to monitor the cell? Will it be permissible to shove a person into the cell with handcuffs behind their back like in the disturbing video of the Rutland incident? The review of that incident was incomplete as there were not enough cameras or audio. This is a serious concern. Before this is built, has there been due diligence in the design of this holding cell? There are very particular state of the art designs that if not put in place here could result in a tragedy. An investigation would be impaired and inconclusive if there is not video footage from every angle, as well as audio.
The other purpose of the police advisory board would be to review citizen concerns and complaints. The Vermont State Constitution Title 20 VSA 2401 states: “(E) Civilian review. Provides for review of officer discipline by civilians, which may be a selectboard or other elected or appointed body, at least for the conduct required to be reported to the Council under this subchapter A, B, C” which are felony and misdemeanors. All other citizen concerns, not arising to the level of felony or misdemeanor, such as code of conduct during a traffic stop, or any other police contact that is not a felony or misdemeanor could be reviewed by the advisory board as well, with the findings going to the town manager and chief of police. Citizens may feel more comfortable coming to the advisory board with citizen concerns.
Additionally, the governor’s executive order stated: “The process of investigating improper conduct allegations must be easily accessible and as transparent as possible, while protecting the privacy of both the accused and the complainant. Investigations must have swift and consistent outcomes and include community oversight.”
So, to summarize, I am asking the town of Chester Selectboard members to place the topic of the formation of a citizen advisory board to the Chester Police Department on the agenda. This board will create transparency and citizen input for town policing, policies, and procedures as well as to be able to review citizen concerns and complaints in police encounters in the town of Chester.