The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Jim Kenyon: Are State Police Peacekeepers or Warriors?

  • 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. Geoff Hansen

Published: 10/15/2017 1:10:34 AM
Modified: 10/15/2017 1:10:34 AM

After watching the video of a Vermont State Police trooper’s traffic stop of a Brooklyn rabbi and his family on Interstate 91 in Thetford, I don’t know whether to be angry or frightened.

Both seem to fit.

The 40-minute encounter, captured on a cruiser’s dashboard video camera, shows what can go wrong when police bring a military mentality to their daily jobs.

It’s Thetford, not Fallujah.

Early in the video, Trooper Justin Thompson is seen screaming and pointing his handgun at 57-year-old Rabbi Berl Fink. He then forces the rabbi onto the pavement before slapping on handcuffs.

Why the pointed gun, the abusive tone of voice and the cuffs? For nothing more serious than speeding and failure to pull over quickly enough? And in spite of the way he was treated, Fink showed nothing but respect and puzzlement.

Even after reinforcements arrived on the scene, the abuse of police power didn’t let up. One cop warned the already-shackled rabbi that “if you don’t do exactly what I say, you’re going to get Tased.”

Before they were done, the four cops had ordered Fink’s wife, 15-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son out of their car at gunpoint.

“What do you want from us?” pleaded Sarah Fink, a school principal, as she was handcuffed.

“Check her for weapons,” one officer barked to a comrade.

“Why are you stopping us?” Fink’s wife asked.

No reply.

The Aug. 8 incident has become national news. You’ll see why if you check out the video (available at www.vnews.com), which state police waited seven weeks to release.

The Finks were headed to New Hampshire on vacation at around midnight when Thompson clocked their 2004 Toyota Camry going 83 mph on I-91 North.

Thompson flipped on his blue lights and siren. The rabbi slowed to about 60 mph, but drove 4.5 miles before pulling over. After he was handcuffed, Fink told the trooper he didn’t realize he was speeding. Once he figured out that he was being asked to pull over, Fink told Thompson, he waited to find a safe place to stop.

“You’re not the one who decides that, I do,” retorted Thompson.

In early September, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, told the New York Post, “My constituents’ dress made it clear that they were Hasidic Jews, a sight that may be uncommon in Vermont but one that is hardly a crime.”

The state police, however, quickly made the incident into one. At the scene, Fink was charged with “attempting to elude,” a misdemeanor. After the Finks went public with details of their “traumatizing” ordeal, as the New York Post headline called it, state police officials announced that their internal affairs unit was investigating the matter.

According to a state police news release, Thompson drew his firearm and initiated a “high-risk motor vehicle stop,” partly because he was in a rural area late at night with no nearby backup.

The same goes for the Fink family, who, by the way, were all unarmed. They were so terrified — and confused — by what was happening that shortly after being stopped, Fink’s son called 911. The family later told The Associated Press that it felt as though they were targets of a terrorist attack.

Miscommunication between the rabbi and the trooper was clearly a problem, Burlington attorney Robert Appel, who is representing Fink, told me over the phone Thursday.

“Can you communicate better at gunpoint? I don’t think so,” said Appel, who wants Fink’s case moved into a court diversion program rather than remain a criminal matter.

If the rabbi was speeding, he no doubt deserved a ticket. But then the cops should have sent him on his way.

I’m afraid, however, roadside encounters such as this one are likely to become more commonplace. There’s little appetite in Washington or state capitols, including Montpelier and Concord, to halt the growing militarization of police — both in equipment or attitude.

“Unfortunately, that’s the mindset,” said Appel, a former director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “The state police see themselves as warriors, not peacekeepers.”

Last week, I asked state police spokesman Scott Waterman if he could arrange for me to talk with Thompson or his bosses. The state police won’t be providing any more “information or comment” on the incident, he emailed.

After internal affairs wrapped up its investigation, the case was sent to the State Police Advisory Commission. The seven-member commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, was created in 1980 to review allegations of misconduct by state troopers. But from what I’ve seen, the commission is nothing more than a smokescreen set up to shield state police from public scrutiny. It meets every couple of months and conducts nearly all of its business behind closed doors.

On Sept. 28, the commission met for a whopping two minutes in public. It did, however, spend two hours and 15 minutes in a “closed session.” Afterward, state police issued a news release announcing that Thompson had been cleared of any wrongdoing. “At no time was Trooper Thompson rude or unprofessional in his conduct with the driver or occupants” the release stated.

It added that the investigation had turned up no evidence to suggest Thompson’s “actions were based on any type of bias or profiling.”

There are two possibilities here: The Finks were treated like terrorists because they looked different. Or motorists who commit minor infractions are treated this way more often than we realize.

Both explanations make me angry and frightened. And a little sick to my stomach.

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




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy