Burlington police official’s anonymous trolling more extensive than city found

  • Deputy Chief of Police Jan Wright was suspended for eight days for inappropriate social media posts. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger VtDigger — GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 1/30/2020 10:10:07 PM
Modified: 1/30/2020 10:13:53 PM

BURLINGTON — An internal city investigation into the city’s deputy police chief found only a fraction of the online comments she made anonymously using fake social media accounts, according to a review by VtDigger.

Deputy Chief Jan Wright was suspended for eight days following an internal investigation that concluded there was “no indication” that she had engaged in a significant amount of online activity using pseudonyms that “would be indicative of obsessive or dangerous behavior.”

However, VtDigger found Wright’s comments were substantially more prolific than what city officials found. The additional posts included charged comments questioning the racial makeup of the police commission, attacking the press and defending her former boss, Chief Brandon del Pozo, who stepped down after his own anonymous online activity was discovered.

The city’s internal investigation, released Monday, listed 16 Facebook comments, two comments on VtDigger’s website and one direct message conversation that Wright had made from “Abby Sykes” and “Lori Spicer” Facebook accounts from May 12 to Sept. 9, 2019.

VtDigger, however, identified an additional 40 Facebook comments between April 19 and Sept.16 of last year that were not included in the investigation’s findings. The VtDigger review took one day.

In one post found by VtDigger, Wright, under the pseudonym “Abby Sykes,” questions the makeup of the police commission, a citizen panel that serves in an advisory role.

“The commission is now 6/7th black. Is this representative of the Burlington community?” the “Abby Sykes” account commented on a Seven Days story about the election of three African American men to the police commission.

Another criticized a VtDigger.org story about the lack of an explanation for del Pozo’s medical leave, which turned out to involve his anonymous use of social media.

“VTDigger — you suck!! Trying to make a story out of a personal medical issue,” Wright wrote on a VtDigger story.

Wright knew about del Pozo’s anonymous social media use that led to that leave, but told investigators she “was unclear that the account itself was the basis for his discipline.”

In response to a comment on a VtDigger post about the controversial firing of a Green Mountain Transit bus driver who kicked students off his bus, Wright criticized the city council.

“That’s apparently the new norm,” she wrote. “Get our elected officials embroiled in a disaster they shouldn’t even be talking about, waste taxpayer time, energy and money and still get nothing accomplished.”

“VTDigger — you must take responsibility for your role in the hatred for police. Click bait,” Wright wrote as a comment on a VtDigger story that reported the Montpelier officer who shot and killed a man in August had been involved in a previous use of force case.

Wright was named acting chief on Dec. 16 after del Pozo’s resignation. But shortly after her appointment, she revealed to Mayor Miro Weinberger that she had been using the “Lori Spicer” account and was demoted back to deputy chief. She was put on administrative leave days later.

The department announced Monday that Wright would be suspended for eight days but was able to return to work immediately as the result of the investigation, which was conducted by Deanna Paluba, the city’s director of human resources.

The investigation states that the city’s review of Wright’s social media activity was “extensive” and had “full cooperation” from Wright but acknowledged that there could have been additional undiscovered activity from the accounts.

City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said Thursday that Wright did not recall the password to access the “Abby Sykes” account, and efforts by the city’s IT department to retrieve the password were unsuccessful.

Blackwood said Wright and the city’s IT staff had gotten into the “Lori Spicer” account, but when the city tried to download the activity log, Facebook locked the account and required identification to verify “Lori Spicer’s” identity. Facebook did not respond to a request from the city to let it access the account, Blackwood said.

The investigation stated that there was “no indication” that Wright had engaged in a significant number of online interactions under the anonymous handles that “would be indicative of obsessive or dangerous behavior.”

“Because the technical limitations prevented complete review of her Facebook activity, the portion of the Spicer activity log that was viewed did not suggest extensive additional activity,” the investigation stated.

Blackwood said the investigation made clear that it was not a complete listing of Wright’s social media usage.

“We were looking for answering the question of, ‘Was there inappropriate use of social media in violation of the city policy?’ And the answer to that was yes,” she said. “And when you find that that was the answer, it wasn’t really necessary to the investigation to find every single post and every single instance of that conduct.”

Blackwood said the city had searched for posts by the accounts on the VtDigger and Seven Days Facebook pages, which turned up a few comments, but did not manually go through replies to comments to find more.

The city’s IT department told investigators that there was not a great deal of activity on the Lori Spicer account, Blackwood said, and the city did not find a quantity of Abby Sykes comments that suggests significant additional usage.

VtDigger identified the additional comments by doing a search of the two accounts’ activity on the news organization’s Facebook posts and doing a manual search of posts made by the police department and del Pozo on their Facebook pages over the past two years. VtDigger also searched the comments sections on Seven Day’s Facebook posts.

In an interview Thursday, Weinberger said that he was “not shocked” to learn additional posts existed from Wright’s accounts. He said the investigation noted that it had not been able to view the full activity logs from the accounts.

Weinberger said the discovery of more posts from Wright’s account was “problematic and troubling.”

The mayor said he still believed that the investigation was extensive, despite its limitations.

“I know it was extensive, I know a lot of work went into it,” he said. “I’m not happy to hear that quickly you have been able to find additional significant additional posts.”

Interim Chief Jen Morrison told VtDigger Thursday that because of the technical limitations listed in the report, the department did not expect the investigation to include every one of Wright’s posts.

“We take this matter very seriously, and I need to look into this further, clearly,” she said.

Morrison said she couldn’t answer the question of whether further sanctions should take place due to legal and procedural standards. She said she would need to review the posts.

City Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District, said the revelation of additional posts confirmed to him investigators did not do their due diligence.

“I think we need to reopen this investigation, because clearly they didn’t gather all the pertinent information,” he said. “They should enter everything you found into it and continue searching for additional information, and take all of that into consideration.”

Weinberger said he wanted to review all of the posts before responding in-depth after VtDigger shared Wright’s anonymous posts about the police commission, city council and VtDigger’s reporting on del Pozo’s leave.

“I’ve been clear publicly that I’m troubled by Chief Wright’s posts,” he said. “These are the first I’ve heard of these, and it sounds like there’s more to come. So I think I’m going to need to look at the full new additional information you are bringing forward here and try to understand essentially if this is more of the troubling posts or if there is something in this that is different in character or nature.”

Weinberger said the police should not be involved in political debates on social media, as they need to be “neutral arbiters removed from the fray.”

Morrison said she would withhold judgment before learning about the posts’ context and getting guidance from others.

“It’s distressing on many levels, not just the content that you shared but the fact we have to keep revisiting this issue,” she said.

Hanson said the posts were “completely unbecoming” of a senior official in the police department.

“We need to hold folks to high standards,” he said. “I think that’s totally inappropriate. Antagonizing community members, press and city councilors is very troublesome, and I really don’t think it’s becoming of a deputy chief of police to be antagonizing folks in our community, the media and elected officials.”

In other comments, Wright questioned State’s Attorney Sarah George’s decision to dismiss the charges against three people accused of murder or attempted murder who were using the insanity defense and defended del Pozo’s decision to question the medical examiner’s homicide finding in the Douglas Kilburn case.

Wright wrote, “I’m not sure what information Sarah George has to make the determination that these three violent people were insane at the time they killed/trued [sic] to kill innocent people; but it appears what we need is a closer look at why these violent people are in Vt, how to keep them off our streets ang get them the help (involuntary) they need. A number of our systems have failed. One affects the other.”

In another comment, Wright wrote about Gov. Phil Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, who questioned del Pozo’s challenge of the homicide finding.

“‘This does not feel right to me, on any level,’ Gov. Scott’s chief of staff wrote in an email ... The audacity for an official to question another official! Apparently you can’t question the State of Vermont or their processes without getting roasted on the front page. (Name of other commenter), your picture states, ‘question what you read’ but I don’t see you doing that here. Question everything. People are up in arms because a police chief is questioning a state official. You know why this is news? Because it’s never been done before. Imagine the cajones!”

“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty ... except on Facebook or if you’re a cop, apparently,” Wright wrote under a pseudonym on a VtDigger story about the trial date being set for a Vermont State Police sergeant accused of stalking his now-estranged wife.

Wright was also unhappy with the two-day suspension state liquor officials imposed on Nectar’s as the result of a settlement agreement that followed the shooting of Chelsea Parker outside of the bar in 2018.

“Really? Two days? On a Tuesday and a Wednesday? What a joke! Can’t wait til I can go to ‘Chelsea Parker’s Nectar’s’ It’ll be a great time,” Wright wrote.

VtDigger found dozens of posts from the “Lori Spicer” and “Abby Sykes” pseudonymous Facebook accounts that were not discovered in a Burlington Police investigation of Deputy Chief Jan Wright’s online activity.

Wright continued to use the account despite questions from other commenters if the account was tied to del Pozo.

“WTH! Because you don’t agree with me you compare me to Brandon del Pozo? Please. Brandon del Pozo doesn’t need an alias. He clearly gets all the crap he needs by posting as himself. Sounds like del Pozo may live in your head too. Good luck with that,” she commented on del Pozo’s Facebook page on July 2, just two days before del Pozo made and operated the “@WinkleWatchers” account he used to attack activist Charles Winkleman and lead to his resignation.

A comment Wright made stating that UVM professor Stephanie Seguino’s research that showed racial disparities in Vermont policing hadn’t been peer-reviewed was included in the investigation. VtDigger found an additional comment from Wright that said: “fake, fake, fake. Professor Seguino isn’t using the correct data and refuses peer review on her documentation.”

Seguino told VtDigger that her research had been peer-reviewed and said efforts by law enforcement to question her research were “deeply concerning.”

“It’s a concern that one might do one’s job as an analyst and face police scrutiny and misinformation that is not even direct, but is clandestine, that undermines the quality of my reputation and that of my co-author [Cornell University’s] Nancy Brooks,” she said.

Hanson said that he believes a full investigation needs to be conducted before proper discipline is established.

On Monday, the department announced Morrison determined that Wright’s behavior was in violation of the city’s personnel police that requires employees act in a conscientious and professional manner.

Before returning to unrestricted duty, Wright is required to participate in social media training provided by the city and in a restorative justice process with the Community Justice Center to rebuild the trust of those with whom she engaged in city business without revealing her identity. She will serve her suspension by giving up five vacation days and serving three additional days without pay.

Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad said Thursday afternoon that Wright would “probably not” be available to comment on the new posts. Part of Wright’s restricted duty includes not speaking publicly on behalf of the department, according to the suspension letter from the chief.

Wright apologized for her behavior in a written statement included with Monday’s investigation.

“I am deeply embarrassed by my behavior,” she said. “I look forward to returning to work and taking the steps necessary to correct my behavior and to regain trust with those with whom it has been broken.”

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