By Jason Starr
The Williston Selectboard in May approved a new employment contract with Williston’s police officers’ union. The contract will begin July 1 and run through December 2021.
The contract sets pay and benefits, defines how officers are disciplined and prescribes what happens to officers’ performance records, among other things.
Officers will receive pay increases of 1.6 percent annually under the new contract, the same annual increase that is in the current contract, Town Manager Rick McGuire said.
The selectboard approved the contract about three weeks before a Minneapolis police officer killed a black man in his custody, which has prompted international demonstrations against police brutality and racism, and calls to defund, disband or completely rethink the way policing is carried out in American communities. In Burlington, for example, a group of 250 citizens spoke at a Board of Finance meeting calling for a 30 percent reduction in police officers and a reduction in the department’s scope of work, according to a VTDigger report.
Gov. Phil Scott has responded to the unrest with the creation of a Racial Equity Task Force.
Officer accountability in Williston is defined by the new contract, which carries forward policies in the current contract and have not been changed in recent memory, McGuire said. Citizen complaints are accepted through a form available at police headquarters on Williston Road and can lead to discipline after an investigation.
According to Police Chief Patrick Foley, there is one current investigation of an officer stemming from a citizen complaint. The complaint is unrelated to the use of force, Foley said, and an investigation of the complaint is currently in the hands of a third-party investigator. He noted that most investigators are retired police officers. Foley said he plans to have Lt. Josh Moore handle most citizen complaint investigations in the future.
“I’d like to have someone in-house who can handle that, so we don’t have to bring in an outside investigator,” Foley said.
When asked whether it might be difficult for a co-worker to be impartial when investigating someone on their own team, Foley said that the “second in command” is in a management position and is not part of the police union.
He said that if a complainant felt uncomfortable with someone from the department conducting the investigation, he would reach out to the state police, the attorney general or the state’s attorney for guidance. “Law enforcement is not territorial,” he said.
On Wednesday, when the Observer asked Foley if he would be willing to speak to these outside resources about setting up an option for using an investigator from outside his department as a matter of regular practice, he said he would be speaking with Vermont’s state attorney general T.J .Donovan on Thursday morning and would discuss this with him. The Observer will have a follow up story next week on the results of that conversation.
Discipline levels range from reprimand to suspension to dismissal, according to the contract. Officers can appeal any disciplinary decision against them to an arbitrator. They can also ask the town manager to expunge any record of disciplinary action from their personnel file after two years. The contract states that all personnel records are kept confidential and not releasable to the public.
Williston is 93 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its largest minority group is African Americans at 1.8 percent of the roughly 10,000-person population. However, the population swells daily with commuting employees, diners and retail shoppers — all of which are part of the Williston Police Department’s purview.
In 2017, a study by the University of Vermont entitled “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont” attempted to quantify biased treatment of minorities by police agencies in Vermont. According to the study, Williston police are more than twice as likely to search a car after stopping a black driver compared to a white driver, and black drivers are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested by Williston police after a traffic stop.
The study was conducted the year Chief Foley started and reflects data from before his tenure. Foley said that since he took over, one Williston officer has attended a training on bias in policing.
“I’ve talked to the chief about doing more training on implicit bias,” McGuire said Monday.
A group of law enforcement leaders from around the state called the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which oversees the Vermont Police Academy, regularly recommends continuing education courses for officers. Vermont state law mandates officers take 30 hours of professional development training annually.
Topics include use of force, firearms handling, fair and impartial policing, social media use and anti-bias policing. Some courses are taught online, others are taught at the Vermont Police Academy and others are taught at out-of-state facilities such as criminal justice colleges and the FBI.
Foley said he prefers to look for training opportunities for his officers outside of Vermont to broaden the array of possible instructors and topics.
But when it comes to use-of-force and de-escalation training, the Williston Police Department has an in-house trainer — officer John Hamlin. He has been on the force for two years and has been trained at the Vermont Police Academy as a use-of-force and de-escalation instructor.
Williston is also part of a group of Chittenden County police departments that have partnered with social workers from the Howard Center to help them respond to domestic disputes and other situations that call for the expertise of a social worker. That program, in its second year, has helped de-escalate incidents in Williston, McGuire said.
The department also recently launched a comfort dog program (see related story) that promises to bring a softer side of policing to the community.
“Officers get training on de-escalation, but from a law enforcement perspective, whereas outreach workers are trained from a social work perspective,” McGuire said. “That’s why they are so important. The officers are trained by seeing them work in those situations. It is really a tremendous benefit.”
‘A group effort’
In a letter to the community following the police killing in Minneapolis and subsequent protests, Foley wrote that the incident has prompted him to “think deeply about systemic racism that has brought our country to this point.”
“The Williston Police Department is committed to looking inward and seeing what areas we can improve upon,” he wrote. “This includes adapting our policies and procedures to even further instill in our officers the importance of community policing and a shared sense of purpose in addressing racism.”
In an interview Tuesday, Foley said he will wait for state legislators — along with the Vermont Police Academy and the Department of Public Safety — to take the lead on reforming police policies.
“This is a group effort to see how we go forward,” Foley said. “Our legislators need to come up with what they want, and work with all law enforcement in the state so we all agree on the direction we need to go.”
On Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy announced the introduction of a bill in Congress called the “Justice in Policing Act.”
“It would require real accountability and transparency in policing, and it would fundamentally alter how law enforcement thinks about its use of force,” said Leahy.