Aldermen surprised by lawsuit filed by former police officer
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | January 28,2013
The latest police scandal in Rutland had some city officials wondering over the weekend just how much things have changed in the department since problems there were first made public three years ago.
In February 2010, city officials said they were surprised to learn about a six-month-old criminal investigation into a police sergeant who was eventually fired by the municipality.
Now, in the wake of a lawsuit brought by former Rutland Police Cpl. Andrew Todd, who is now a Vermont State Police trooper, some members of the Board of Aldermen are wondering why they didn’t learn about Todd’s complaints to the administration sooner.
In his lawsuit, Todd said that at the end of 2011 he brought complaints that he was being discriminated against by his superiors to Police Commission Chairman Larry Jensen, who is among the city officials being sued, and Mayor Christopher Louras.
Those complaints were never shared with the aldermen, four of whom said Sunday they were unprepared when news reached them Friday of the case that claims a widespread system of corruption and cover-up inside the department.
“I was unaware of any of it,” Alderwoman Sharon Davis said. “There was no scuttlebutt that any of this was pending.”
Like other aldermen reached Sunday, Davis, a senior member of the board, declined to comment on the specifics of Todd’s complaint.
But she was adamant in her view that Louras should have told the aldermen about Todd’s complaints before the lawsuit was filed.
“I absolutely believe he should have brought it to us,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate but it’s not the first time.”
Board President David Allaire – who is running a campaign to unseat Louras in March – didn’t speak in absolutes about the lack of forewarning from the mayor’s office, but he made it clear it didn’t sit well with him.
“The mayor is the CEO of the city,” he said. “I’ll let the voters judge what his obligations should be.”
For his part, Louras said Sunday he spoke with Todd on Dec. 22, 2011.
Asked whether he reported the substance of that conversation to anyone else, he said he did, although he declined to say who he talked to or how the complaint was handled.
“I discussed the matter with appropriate individuals and appropriate action was taken,” Louras said.
The mayor’s decision not to bring the issue to the board wasn’t a problem for some city aldermen.
Alerman Sean Sargeant said voters have made it clear in the past that they want the Police Commission, not the aldermen, to oversee the department.
“They made their views clear so I’m not mad at the chief or Chris for not bringing this to us,” he said.
Alderman Christopher Robinson said Sunday that while he had plenty of concerns about the administration at the police department, he couldn’t fault the mayor for not bringing Todd’s complaint to the city’s legislative body.
“If there was something we could have done as a legislative assembly then maybe he should have, but I can see where he wouldn’t have to,” he said.
While Robinson found no fault with the mayor’s decision not to inform the board about his conversation with Todd, he was critical of what he called Louras’ lack of leadership before and after the scandals that rocked the department in 2010.
“In my personal opinion, he failed,” Robinson said. “He should have stepped up one way or another. He disappointed me. It didn’t feel like he was taking the matters seriously.”
During his six years as mayor, Louras has often deferred issues involving the oversight of the department to the five-member Police Commission whose members are selected by the mayor and ratified by the board but who operate independently of both branches of government.
While he credits Louras with some good works in the department, including his efforts to persuade Police Chief James Baker to seek the post after an interim role, Robinson said Louras was too aloof on issues inside the department.
“He never weighed in on (former Police Chief Anthony Bossi) and he never weighed in on the rank and file,” Robinson said. “Where was he?”
Like other members of the board interviewed Sunday, Robinson also wondered why Bossi, who served as chief for 13 years before he retired last January, wasn’t named as a defendant in Todd’s lawsuit, which identifies the department’s lieutenant, captain, Baker and Jensen as culpable parties for a pattern of abuse the former officer argues he was subjected to for years.
And like most of his colleagues and other city officials reached Sunday, Robinson said his view of Baker wasn’t tarnished by the complaints in the lawsuit which alleged that the chief tried to cover up the abuse.
“I feel bad that our new chief who was brought in to fix our problems is now having his name dragged through the mud,” Robinson said.
Allaire, who called for Bossi to be fired in the wake of problems found in the department in 2010, said omitting the former chief from the complaint was unusual.
“I find it curious that he wasn’t named because he was the chief at that time that most of the stuff in the lawsuit was happening,” he said. “I think this case is a manifestation of what happened in the past. This case is a nutshell of what my campaign is about. Until we get our ship in order, public safety in general is going to have a hard time moving forward.”
Davis also said she believed the case was the product of a “leftover atmosphere” inside the department.
Asked Sunday afternoon why Bossi wasn’t named in the complaint, Todd’s attorney, John Paul Faignant, said it was because the former chief was no longer a part of the pattern of abuse described in the complaint.
“He’s retired. There’s no need to name him. He’s not part of the problem anymore,” Faignant said. “Our allegation is that this is an ongoing problem.”
The perspective of three members of the city’s Police Commission were also mixed.
Jensen, who was out of town on Friday when the lawsuit was served to the city, said he had no inkling the complaint was coming despite his conversation with Todd in November 2011.
He declined to talk about the specifics of the former officer’s lawsuit or how his complaints were handled two years ago.
But he said his confidence in Baker was unshaken and he believes the department’s efforts to implement a comprehensive illegal drug strategy will continue unimpeded.
“I think the entire department and all the officers in it have made significant strides in improving their professionalism,” he said. “I can’t speak for the people in the community but I have faith that they’ll be able to arrive at that same judgment on their own.”
Police Commissioner Thomas Calcagni didn’t sound as certain as Jensen.
“I think any sorts of negative thoughts or words can set you back,” he said.
But Calcagni said he also believed the strides made by the officers and Baker to restore the public’s trust in the department would serve as a counterbalance.
“A distraction is the best description, I think,” Calcagni said.
Dr. Luther Brown, own of the newest commissioners, with less than a year under his belt, said he believed the department had to take a thoughtful and methodical approach in its response to the issues identified in the lawsuit.
While all of the claims are likely to be contested, Brown said the commission and the department should work to strengthen its practices and policies, including those that relate to racial discrimination and bias.
Those issues are central to the complaint brought by Todd, who is black.
In his complaint, he said former police Sgt. John Johnson used disparaging racial terms despite requests that he stop.
Johnson and former officer Frank Post were involved in a drug investigation of a black man who sued the department for being singled out and discriminated against. The city eventually settled that case for $30,300.
Before that settlement was reached, Johnson and Post were put on leave while an internal investigation conducted by former state Department of Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay was conducted into unspecified violations of departmental rules and policies.
That investigation ended with Johnson and Post leaving the force.
Brown, who is the first black man to be appointed to the Police Commission, said he believed the new chief was responding effectively to discrimination concerns.
“He’s exposing new trainees to the policies and it’s being imbedded in all of the department’s practices,” he said. “Issues of discrimination are extremely serious and we want to address them moving forward.”