Nearly half of Northfield police have potential credibility issues, including the chief
Nearly half of the officers at the Northfield Police Department have been flagged by prosecutors for having potential credibility issues, records show. The allegations of misconduct all stem from work the officers did for other police departments before they landed jobs in Northfield. Among the allegations: Chief John Helfant allegedly failed to obtain consent before performing a searches during traffic stops, and Sgt. Aaron Cochran allegedly mishandled an internal affairs investigation and asked subordinate officers to follow his spouse, whom he suspected of having an affair.
The credibility concerns could imperil core duties of the three Northfield officers, including offering sworn testimony or evidence in any cases they are involved with. But town officials say they aren’t concerned about the department’s ability to carry out its duties.
The Northfield police department’s seven officers serve the Washington County town of 3,757 residents, which is also home to Norwich University. Three of the department's officers — Helfant, Cochran, and officer Monica Welch — have been named in Brady-Giglio letters, legal disclosures made by prosecutors if they have information that could undermine an officer’s credibility. A Brady-Giglio letter can prevent a cop from taking the witness stand or bringing cases, which often ends an officer’s career.
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“That is a troubling indicator,” said Lia Ernst, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. “A Brady letter isn't issued lightly or without cause and the fact that nearly half of a department has Brady letters indicates something perhaps systemic with that department.”
But town officials are defending the police department. They say as long as the officers can still bring cases in court, there isn’t an issue.
“Anytime anything like this comes up, yeah, I mean, we take it very seriously, we investigate it,” said Jeff Schulz, Northfield’s town manager. “It's important to note that the state's attorney is taking cases from those three officers.”
But there are some cases that Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault won’t take from Northfield’s top cop. In a 2020 Brady-Giglio letter, Thibault said he would presumptively decline certain cases from Helfant, like drug crimes and driving offenses, due to the chief’s credibility issues.
Thibault’s Brady-Giglio letter for Helfant stems from two drug cases from when Helfant worked as an officer in Berlin. Both cases were dismissed after questions were raised about whether Helfant obtained proper consent to search people during traffic stops, records say.
Helfant has denied any wrongdoing in those incidents. State police conducted a criminal investigation into Helfant and the Attorney General’s office declined to file charges, according to the Brady-Giglio letter filed by Thibault.
The Northfield department’s most recent hire with alleged credibility issues is former Hardwick police chief Aaron Cochran, who left the Caledonia County town after an internal affairs investigation found he’d potentially mishandled an internal investigation.
In a recent memo, Thibault said he would still take cases from Cochran.
I did not see the type of clear-cut credibility issues that would warrant categorical declination of taking cases.Rory Thibault, Washington County State's Attorney
“So much of that case really revolves around, I think, performance issues pertaining to decisions he made as chief,” Thibault said in an interview. “I did not see the type of clear-cut credibility issues that would warrant categorical declination of taking cases.”
Thibault is the only county prosecutor with a written policy for determining whether to file a Brady-Giglio letter, according to the ACLU of Vermont.
Records obtained by Vermont Public offer greater details on Cochran’s departure from the Hardwick Police Department.
On October 20, 2021, Caledonia State’s Attorney Jessica Zaleski asked Cochran for a copy of an internal investigation he’d conducted into one of his officers. Darin Barber, a sergeant at the department, allegedly took home a bottle of whiskey that had been confiscated from several teenagers. Another Hardwick officer filed a complaint about Barber’s actions.
Cochran initially cleared Barber of wrongdoing because he thought the department’s policy around alcohol seized in a civil matter was unclear, the internal affairs report says. But the town of Hardwick hired Williston Police to conduct a second investigation. That inquiry found that Barber appeared to have violated department policy. Barber resigned in January.
According to an internal affairs investigation into Cochran, the former chief didn’t write up his inquiry into Barber’s actions until after Zaleski requested the documents – five months after Cochran said he conducted the investigation.
Two former Hardwick officers told the investigator they left the department because of Cochran’s handling of the incident, records say.
“It's that age-old saying in law enforcement — if it's not documented, it didn't happen,” said David Upson, Hardwick’s town manager and a former state trooper, in an interview.
It's that age-old saying in law enforcement — if it's not documented, it didn't happen.David Upson, Hardwick town manager
The investigation found that Cochran appeared to have violated the department’s internal affairs policy. Cochran declined to comment to Vermont Public.
The internal investigation also found that Cochran allegedly asked at least two of his subordinates if they’d help him follow his wife, whom he suspected was having an affair. One officer, according to the report, said the request made him feel "very uncomfortable" and the investigator noted that the behavior was “highly inappropriate,” according to the internal affairs report. Cochran told the investigator that requests weren't serious and were "more of a joke," the reports says.
Cochran agreed to resign on Oct. 7, after nearly 10 months of paid administrative leave. Zaleski named Cochran in a Brady-Giglio letter later that month. She said Cochran had been dishonest during the review of Barber’s actions and the subsequent inquiries. Zaleski didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ten days after leaving Hardwick, Northfield police hired Cochran as a sergeant. Zaleski didn't issue the Brady-Giglio letter naming Cochran until after he'd been hired by Northfield.
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Helfant, the Northfield police chief, said that the town of Hardwick wouldn’t release the internal affairs report during their hiring of Cochran.
“It was a dispute between Chief Cochran and the town manager and those are not uncommon,” Helfant said in a recent interview. “That does not affect his ability to function as a police officer.”
Upson, the Harwick town manager, said he was working through the administrative process to release the documents to Northfield but the department hired Cochran before that process was finished.
“It's not my responsibility to make sure that Northfield PD has everything that they need before they hire somebody,” Upson said.
Upson said he filed a complaint about Cochran with the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, which is responsible for professional regulation of the state’s law enforcement personnel. It’s not clear if the council has taken any actions.
In an email, Christopher Brickell, deputy director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council, said he couldn’t “confirm or deny any complaint is made against a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether one is reported in the media.”
Until there is a set standard in the state of Vermont, for the issuance of these … and officers are awarded the ability to appeal any issuance of such letters, they don't hold a lot of meaning.Northfield Police Chief John Helfant
The other officer at Northfield with a Brady-Giglio letter, Monica Welch, was allegedly untruthful when she worked for the Barre Town police department. According to a 2020 letter filed by Thibault, Welch was fired from the department in April 2019 and the chief expressed concerns about her truthfulness and integrity. Welch did not respond to a request for comment.
Thibault said he does still accept cases from Welch, though his office keeps an eye on her casework.
“There's a degree of risk that any prosecutor will take when putting someone on the stand with Brady or Giglio material,” Thibault said. “At this point that's a risk we've been willing to take, but again, that may not always be the case, depending on any future incidents or performance issues that come up.”
Helfant said he isn’t concerned about Welch handling cases. In general, Helfant said, Brady-Giglio letters in Vermont don’t hold a lot of weight.
“The fact that they're issued so often in this state, and if you do your research, you'll find some police departments also have numerous officers with them,” Helfant said. “Until there is a set standard in the state of Vermont, for the issuance of these … and officers are awarded the ability to appeal any issuance of such letters, they don't hold a lot of meaning.”
Earlier this year, the legislature ordered a study of whether the state should create a database of all Brady-Giglio letters and more statewide policies about how the letters are issued. A recent report from the study committee didn’t come to any consensus on how to move forward.
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