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Burlington Police Officer Sues State Over Head Injuries Received During Training

A police car flashes its blue lights.
Angela Evancie
VPR File
A Burlington Police officer is suing the state alleging that she suffered three concussions and hearing loss due to a training exercise at the Vermont Police Academy.

A Burlington police officer has sued the state, saying she suffered three concussions and permanent hearing damage during a training exercise at the Vermont Police Academy.

Meanwhile, a report from the Burlington Police Department in April 2018 said at least three other officers suffered similar injuries during their mandatory training at the Pittsford academy. But the group that oversees the academy initially refused to conduct an internal investigation when presented with the Burlington police report.

The suit alleges that Burlington police officer Erin Bartle suffered three concussions during the “hitchhiker” drill.

During the training, an instructor pretends to be an intoxicated hitchhiker and attacks the training officer when the officer asks them for identification. It is designed to teach self-defense.

Bartle went through the exercise three times and in each instance was hit in the head. During one drill she was “repeatedly punched … in the head with great force, knocking her to here knees, causing her to nearly lose consciousness," according to the lawsuit.

The complaint also said the police academy didn’t give trainees adequate equipment to protect them from head injuries, and failed to monitor trainees for injuries.

Jerry O’Neill, an attorney who represents Bartle, said she has permanent injuries, including hearing damage.

O’Neill said he’s seeking money damages for his client and a review of training at the police academy.

“They knew down at the academy that when you punch people in the head like this you were going to cause concussions, but someone let them continue to do it. Where’s the supervision?” he said in an interview.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said he has never heard of a police training that involved hitting an unsuspecting officer.

“I've also never heard of training that results in a pattern of head injuries that go unacknowledged and unaddressed until an outside agency discovers them and investigates,” he said.

The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, the group that oversees the academy, initially declined to conduct an internal investigation of its training program after the Burlington Police raised concerns.

Richard Gauthier, the executive director of the council, defended the exercise in an interview Tuesday.

“The strike is not a full force punch … it’s more of a swat, it’s an attention-getter,” he said.

Gauthier said after the Burlington Police submitted their report in April 2018, the instructors stopped hitting officers in the head. He said at first the council declined to conduct an investigation based on the advice of their attorney.

Gauthier said there have been no disciplinary actions taken related to the complaint.

The academy decided Monday to stop using the drill — but not because of safety concerns. Gauthier said due to all the press attention, the element of surprise in the drill was lost.

“It’s same as if you took one of our criminal law quizzes and published,” he said.

The academy will also conduct a content review of all the practical scenarios at the academy.

But the council changed its mind. It voted to start an internal investigation in the fall of 2018, Attorney General TJ Donovan said. Donovan said an outside third-party would conduct the investigation.

“We’re moving forward, we’re going to make sure nobody one gets injured and we’re going to make sure that we have first-rate police officers in the state,” said Donovan, a member of the council.

Del Pozo said he reached out to police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and New York and none of them had similar training practices.

When the academy initially refused to investigate, del Pozo said he asked the head of tactics at the Baltimore Police Department to examine the drill.

In his review, Baltimore Police Sgt. Scott Swenson wrote that “it is problematic to place an instructor in a position where they would strike a trainee” and that the Vermont drill “requires serious examination.”

Update 11:05 a.m. 1/8/2019 This post was updated to include comments from Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council Executive Director Richard Gauthier

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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