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Editorial: Shielded From View; Accountability Requires Transparency

Anticipating a debate about changing state law that governs the handling of police records, Vermont lawmakers last year sought guidance from the Department of Public Safety’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board. It submitted a 51-page report early this year that, among other things, suggested that the State Police Advisory Commission serve as a model for holding law enforcement officers accountable.

But after reading a Seven Days article in Monday’s Valley News about how the State Police Advisory Commission operates, we have somewhat different advice: Shut down the advisory commission if the state can’t figure out how to make it more transparent. To the extent that the commission is supposed to provide independent oversight of internal police investigations, it seems to be doing more harm than good.

Established by Gov. Richard Snelling in 1980 after a scandal raised questions about the thoroughness of internal investigations by the state police, the advisory commission is an all-volunteer committee that generally meets every other month and provides nonbinding recommendations to the commissioner of public safety. The value of providing independent oversight of internal investigations is easy to grasp. When people are issued uniforms, badges, guns and the power to deprive citizens of their liberty, the public needs to know that credible complaints about how that authority is exercised are fully looked into.

That worthy aim is utterly defeated, however, when the public has no way of monitoring the commission’s workings. According to Seven Days, the seven-member board conducts virtually all of its business behind closed doors. Not only does it deliberate in secret, it keeps its findings confidential, too. In its 30-year history, the State Police Advisory Commission has released the results of a review exactly once — to rebut an accusation that a trooper had engaged in racial profiling that attracted considerable publicity and the involvement of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

Want to read the minutes of the commission’s meetings? You’ll have to drive to Waterbury for a visit to the public safety commissioner’s office, because they’re not posted online. Want some biographical information about the commission members? You won’t get anything more than their names if you check the website. When Seven Days reporter Ken Picard attempted to contact commission members, only one returned his call. Not that it did much good. Commission member Leo Willey told Picard that the commission couldn’t provide information about the number of cases it investigates or how many of those investigations result in recommendations of disciplinary action because the commission doesn’t keep track.

Did it look into the incident in Thetford last year when a state trooper’s use of a Taser resulted in the death of Macadam Mason? Willey declined to say.

OK, everybody who feels assured that the advisory commission is a reliable watchdog should raise a hand.

Willey, by the way, is a retired state trooper. Several other members of the commission have associations that raise questions about their impartiality, including chairwoman Nancy Sheahan, a lawyer who serves as counsel to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and has represented towns with police officers accused of misconduct.

“To me, this is not a viable scheme of accountability,” said Robert Appel, who is the outgoing executive director of the Human Rights Commission, not to mention a master of understatement. He has filed complaints with the police commission, never to hear about them again.

The Legislature is, we hope, on the verge of making changes that will at long last recognize that shielding law enforcement agencies from regular public scrutiny is a recipe for disaster. If lawmakers need a quick lesson in how secrecy and lack of accountability ill serve the public interest, the operation of this commission is a model in that regard, at least.