The chief of a small Vermont police department says he's changed the use-of-force reporting policies in the aftermath of an altercation in which a handcuffed woman was thrown against a wall and punched in the face by a sergeant who was later fired.
St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said he did not become aware of the details of the March altercation until late May when he watched footage of it that was requested by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Now, Vermont State Police detectives are investigating the encounter between former St. Albans police Sgt. Jason Lawton and a woman he arrested, Amy Connelly.
The video, some of it from a police body camera, shows the apparently intoxicated Connelly, 35, being thrown against a wall in the broom-closet-sized holding cell after she refuses to sit down. When she stands back up and tries to kick Lawton, he responds by punching her in the face.
In court documents, Lawton originally said the blow to the face was to gain control of the situation and that it ended her aggressive behavior.
But Taylor said that was not what the footage showed.
"The minute I saw the video I was disturbed by what I saw and directed that there be an internal, administrative investigation conducted," Taylor said Thursday in his St. Albans office.
The internal investigation began June 3. On June 12, Lawton was placed on administrative leave. By July 1, after the department's internal procedures were followed, Lawton was fired.
Lawton has appealed his firing. His attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
On the evening of March 14, St. Albans police were called to a local bar after receiving reports that Connelly was arguing with others and refused to leave.
After she was taken to the police station, video shows Lawton going into a cell after Connelly apparently kicked the door. He swears at her, punches her in the face and throws her to the ground. He then said he was going to charge Connelly with assault.
Connelly is heard repeatedly saying, "Why would you do this?"
Connelly has pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct, unlawful mischief and simple assault. Last week, her attorney asked the court to dismiss the charges against her.
Before the altercation, when force was used it was self-reported.
Taylor said that policy has now been changed so that all physical exchanges between officers and suspects, even minor ones, must be reviewed by the patrol commanders who will report anything questionable to the chief.
In addition to Lawton's firing, a second officer involved was allowed to resign. A third is facing an internal review.
Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with the Vermont ACLU, said the group became aware of the altercation after they were contacted by Connelly.
"With the body camera footage, we're actually able to see exactly what happened, see an officer upper-cutting a young distraught woman with handcuffs behind her back," Diaz said.
Diaz said the ACLU was pleased there has been accountability in this case.
Taylor said that since the video of the encounter began to circulate, the department has received thousands of messages from people upset at what they had seen. He said what happened was not indicative of his department.
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