Jim Kenyon: Police brutality and racial bias — it’s here in the Upper Valley, too

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/6/2020 10:28:42 PM
Modified: 6/6/2020 10:28:40 PM

On a late spring afternoon, an unarmed black man who had not committed a crime was beaten with a nightstick and blasted with pepper spray by two Hartford police officers.

Wayne Burwell, a 1998 Dartmouth graduate and well-known Upper Valley fitness trainer, was then hauled out of his home in handcuffs, covered only by a blanket.

The incident wasn’t captured on video. No large street protests followed. The officers and none of their superiors lost their jobs. (And since cops’ personnel files are kept secret under Vermont’s sham of a public records law, it’s unclear if anyone was even reprimanded.)

The police brutality in Hartford wasn’t at the level of what took place on a Minneapolis street two weeks ago.

But what happened 10 years ago at the Stony Creek complex on Hartford Avenue remains a stark reminder that the lily-white Upper Valley is not immune to violent police encounters with black people.

On May 29, 2010 — a Memorial Day weekend — three white Hartford police officers responded to what they believed was a “burglary in progress.”

With guns drawn, officers Kristinnah Adams, Fred Peyton and Scott Moody entered the three-story townhome. Adams and Peyton found Burwell, 34 years old at the time, sitting unclothed and sweating profusely on a closed toilet seat in a third-floor bathroom.

Much of what transpired was picked up on the microphones attached to the officers’ uniforms.

“Throw your f hands up or I’ll shoot you, motherfer,” Peyton screamed.

After an unresponsive Burwell failed to obey officers’ commands, a “scuffle ensued,” according to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

I met with Burwell two days after the incident. He was bruised and sore from the beating. He needed stitches to close a cut on his wrist from the handcuffs.

Burwell couldn’t recall much of what had happened that Saturday afternoon. He’d been under a doctor’s care for an undiagnosed ailment that caused his blood glucose levels to drop dangerously low and leave him semi-unconscious. (Three months later, surgeons removed a benign tumor on his pancreas.)

Police kept Burwell shackled until paramedics confirmed that he was the homeowner they had treated earlier that spring.

The encounter, with its racial overtones, was a wake-up call for white residents in the Upper Valley. Abuse of police power wasn’t only in faraway cities.

The town’s response was disturbing and telling: Hartford officials were unapologetic. They never took ownership of what went wrong in Wilder. Time after time I was told the cops were just doing their job.

After hearing Burwell’s story, I tried to get a copy of the police report, but was denied. The next day, then-Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting asked Vermont State Police to investigate.

Cops investigating cops hardly builds public trust. So there was no feigning surprise when six months later, then-Attorney General Bill Sorrell, relying on the state police investigation, cleared Adams and Peyton of criminal wrongdoing.

In 2012, Burwell filed a civil rights lawsuit, alleging, among other things, excessive use of force. The town and its lawyers, paid for by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, dragged the case out in hopes that Burwell might tire of the legal fight and go away.

On the verge of going to trial in 2017, Burwell received a $500,000 out-of-court settlement — covered by the town’s insurers — on the unreasonable force claim. (A federal judge ruled earlier there was insufficient evidence to support Burwell’s claim that Hartford police were motivated by racial bias.)

In September 2017 — around the time the settlement was announced — an unnamed Hartford officer reported that Peyton had mistreated a suspect in a holding cell. Two weeks later, Peyton submitted an “immediate resignation.” The Attorney General’s Office investigated the allegation, but no charges were filed.

On Friday, I learned that Adams was fired last month. In an email, Police Chief Phil Kasten said that Adams was “contesting” her termination and he couldn’t comment further.

In many respects, Hartford isn’t the same town it was 10 years ago. It has a new police chief and a different town manager (who is soon to be replaced by a third). The Selectboard has turned over completely.

Hartford police officers now wear body cameras, an accountability measure implemented before Kasten arrived from Maryland in 2015.

Under Kasten’s leadership, Hartford officers now undergo crisis intervention team training, where they’re taught to de-escalate tense situations.

Kasten has also raised recruiting standards. Three positions in the 23-officer department remain unfilled as Kasten has enhanced the vetting process.

It may seem like a small thing, but the police union’s contract has also been tweaked. The use of “violent language,” which was rampant in the encounter with Burwell, is now prohibited.

“Things are better in Hartford because there’s been a culture change in the police department,” Allene Swienckowski told me. Swienckowski, who is black, is chairwoman of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion.

On Wednesday, Kasten spoke at length during the committee’s Zoom meeting. After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, reaching out to the public is more important than ever, he told me.

“We recognize people want reassurance that they can have trust in their police department,” he said.

Last week I stopped by Burwell’s gym in Lebanon. He sat on the steps, where we talked for a few minutes. I asked if he’d be willing to share this thoughts on the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and what happened to him 10 years earlier, nearly to the day.

Later, Burwell sent me a text message. In politely declining my interview request, he wrote, “wish it didn’t still hurt.”

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




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