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Jim Kenyon: Vermont Won’t Elude Criticism Over I-91 Stop

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

It will probably be a while before Brooklyn Rabbi Berl Fink, who was arrested on Interstate 91 in Fairlee for not pulling over as quickly as a Vermont State Police trooper would have liked, gets his day in court.

But regardless of the jury’s verdict, the state of Vermont is already a big loser in the court of public opinion.

A 40-minute video, shot from a police cruiser’s dashboard camera, shows the 57-year-old Fink and his family getting verbally abused and handcuffed at gunpoint.

The video, which state police waited seven weeks to release, has gone viral. (available at www.vnews.com) And as Fink’s attorney, Robert Appel, of Burlington, quipped, “It’s not a video that the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing is going to be putting up on its website.”

The state is already arguably among the worst states in the country for racially profiling drivers during traffic stops.

Minority drivers are more likely to be stopped, given citations and searched than white drivers, concluded a 5½-year study of Vermont State Police by Northeastern University’s Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research in 2016. In January, University of Vermont researchers released their own study that produced similar findings.

Now we have footage of state troopers going berserko on a family of Hasidic Jews — dressed in their religion’s distinctive clothing — while they pass through the Upper Valley on vacation.

The incident began around midnight on Aug. 8 when trooper Justin Thompson clocked Fink driving 83 mph in the family’s 2004 Toyota Camry on I-91 in Thetford.

Thompson flipped on his blue lights and siren. Fink maintains that at first he didn’t realize the trooper was coming after him. Fink, who had slowed to about 60 mph, drove 4.5 miles — crossing into Fairlee — before stopping. Fink told the trooper he waited to find a safe place to pull over.

Too late. Thompson was already into his gun-pointing tirade. With his weapon drawn, the trooper screamed at Fink to get out of the car, before forcing him to the pavement. Moments later, another officer threatened to Taser the already-handcuffed rabbi — who was nothing but respectful during the ordeal — if he failed to follow instructions.

Fink’s 19-year-old son was then ordered out of the car at gunpoint and pushed against the car’s trunk before he, too, was handcuffed.

Fink’s wife, Sarah, a school principal, was the next to be shackled. She pleaded with troopers (I counted at least three in the video) to go easy on the couple’s 15-year-old daughter.

In a show of common sense (better late than never, I guess), troopers didn’t handcuff the girl while the family was detained for 30 minutes or so on the side of the highway.

Fink was charged with eluding a police officer, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Now for the weird part: Fink wasn’t issued a ticket for speeding, as Scott Waterman, the state police spokesman, confirmed for me.

On Sept. 28, the State Police Advisory Commission met for more than two hours behind closed doors to review a state police investigation into the matter. Afterward, the state police issued a news release announcing that Thompson had been cleared of any wrongdoing. There was no evidence to suggest Thompson’s “actions were based on any type of bias or profiling,” the release stated.

The Legislature established the advisory commission, whose seven members are appointed by the governor, to review allegations of misconduct by state troopers.

A government watchdog? Hardly.

Its job is to “provide guidance” to the commissioner of public safety, Burlington attorney Nancy Goss Sheahan, who chairs the commission, told me. “We don’t conduct our own investigations,” she said.

In other words, Vermont’s idea of oversight is allowing the state police to police themselves.

State police could have — and in my view, should have — chalked up the entire matter as an unfortunate misunderstanding and dropped it. Instead they sent it to Orange County State’s Attorney Will Porter, who then watched the video.

Porter told me that he’s prepared to argue in court that the stop was justified and legal. But it’s not his job to evaluate the troopers’ behavior during the stop, he said.

Porter, in his own way, is trying to make the case disappear. He offered Fink what’s called court diversion. That means the case would no longer be a criminal matter — and therefore out of public view. Since Fink doesn’t have a criminal record, he’d likely receive community service.

But he’d still have to acknowledge wrongdoing, which he isn’t willing to do. Not only is the charge unwarranted, “we believe Vermont State Police and the state of Vermont owe Rabbi Fink and his family an apology for the way they were treated,” said Appel, former director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

On Wednesday, Fink pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge in Orange Superior Court. Within hours, newspaper websites from Maine to Minnesota had picked up The Associated Press story. The New York Times and The Washington Post also carried it online.

New York lawmaker Dov Hikind, who represents a heavily Jewish portion of Brooklyn in the state Assembly, said he’s received hundreds of emails and postcards from Vermonters apologizing for what happened. But calls to Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials, asking them to take a “closer look,” have gone unreturned, he said.

On Friday evening, I heard back from Scott’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Kelley. She emailed that, in the governor’s view, “the trooper handled the situation exactly as he was trained, and with a high degree of professionalism.”

It’s clear that NASCAR Phil and other state leaders just want the entire mess to go away ASAP.

Except, as Hikind points out, that’s unlikely. “Vermont is a beautiful state with good people, but this is not good for Vermont,” he said. “It’s becoming national news.”

The kind of news that Vermont doesn’t need any more of.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.