Sex, drugs, and racist policing in Rutland, Vt.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders recently pledged that “no president will fight harder to end institutional racism.” But he doesn’t have to wait for the White House to do it. He could start right now, in his own backyard.
Thanks to a lawsuit filed in Rutland, Vt., the world is about to get a rare, behind-the-dashcam look at police culture in a rural Vermont town. It ain't pretty.
To be sure, police in Rutland have a tough job. The once-idyllic town has battled the scourge of heroin for years. New York City drug dealers flock there to sell their wares at a higher profit.
But there's a right way and a wrong way to tackle this problem. Rutland chose the wrong way: Two white police officers — Sergeant John Johnson and Officer Earl Post — began strip-searching black men coming off the Amtrak train.
They manufactured probable cause, claiming they'd gotten a tip from a "confidential informant," according to the lawsuit, filed by Andy Todd, who served for years as the only black officer on Rutland's force.
"They were viewed as great cops doing great police work," Todd told me. "They were receiving accolades."
When Johnson found white people with drugs, he arrested them only 12 percent of the time. But when he found black people with drugs, he arrested them 87 percent of the time, according to an internal affairs investigation conducted after Todd complained.
Even when Johnson and Post opted not to arrest black people, they often took money from them — sometimes thousands of dollars — as "evidence" in a crime for which they had not been charged, according to Todd.
Maybe you think that racial profiling isn't your problem. Or maybe you think it's actually justified. But in fact, studies show that racial profiling actually makes police less effective.
"Despite what people think, it does not net more bad guys for the police," said David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work." "It doesn't even net the same number as police work that doesn't use race."
Even worse, Harris said, police officers who are willing to break the rules on racial profiling "find themselves willing to break other rules as well.'' Officers who have no qualms abusing their authority over black people have no qualms abusing their authority, period.
That's exactly what happened in Rutland.
Johnson and Post let white women with drugs go free because they wanted to "cultivate" them as "confidential informants." But "cultivating" them all too often meant having sex with them. That's right. It was "common knowledge" among police that Johnson had inappropriate relationships with women from whom he sought drug information, according to three Rutland police officers interviewed by Todd's lawyer.
"Was Johnson known to have sex on the job? Yes," police dispatcher Lynette M. Gallipo said. One white woman called the station continuously when she couldn't reach Johnson on his cell phone. "If she was taken in, she would automatically start screaming for him, knowing he would offer favors."
Another white woman, referred to as an "unregistered drug informant," told Thomas Tremblay, the internal affairs investigator, that she'd slept with Johnson for years. She "felt like he used her when she was younger and struggling with drug addiction," Tremblay wrote in his report.
"She said that Sergeant Johnson was very racist," the report went on. "Sergeant Johnson would tell her about how he would strip search black males and he would comment to her about [their genitalia]."
That's not all: Post — also, like Johnson, a married middle-aged man — slept with a 19-year-old drug user while he worked the night shift, according to transcripts of interviews Tremblay did with the girl and her mother, who complained to police. Who got assigned to look into this sensitive matter? Johnson did. Of course.
It gets worse. In March of 2011, Johnson stopped a car carrying a black man from Brooklyn named Mark Allen, who had just come off the Amtrak train. Johnson searched the car and found a marijuana pipe. But he let the white driver and a white passenger go free while he took Allen to the station to be strip-searched.
Allen, who didn't have drugs on him at the time, sued the city and won a $30,000 civil rights settlement. Johnson grew determined to catch him selling drugs.
"You need to help me get this guy," Johnson told the "unregistered confidential informant" he was sleeping with, according to Tremblay's report. She declined.
But a few months later, in July of 2011, Post found someone else to help: a white female drug user he'd stopped for a traffic violation. After Johnson told her about Allen's lawsuit, she bought $700 worth of drugs from Allen. But he never stood trial. It's not clear why. Sloppy police work might have had something to do with it.
Tremblay, who reviewed all 14 of the controlled-drug purchases that Johnson oversaw, noted that Johnson "couldn't confidently demonstrate a clear recollection of who the informant was, where the purchase was made, who the target was."
Yet Johnson was promoted. He and Post were golden boys. Heroes in the war on drugs.
They might still be considered heroes had it not been for Todd, the black Rutland police officer. Todd, a corporal on the Rutland force, himself had been the victim of racial profiling as a kid. His family, one of only two black families in North Adams, Mass., had been doubly marked: His father was in prison for murder. Years later, his brother followed.
But Todd followed the straight and narrow path. He went to college, married, and moved to Rutland. He loved the town, and he loved being a police officer — until he met Johnson and Post. They tossed the N-word around. They called Amtrak the "Soul Train."
Plenty of white officers hated the way Johnson and Post treated black people, including Todd.
"It made my stomach sick to watch them," former Officer Craig Hunt told Todd's lawyer.
But everybody held their tongues, even Todd. Then one night a woman overdosed with her infant at her feet. Todd called desperately for backup. He helped save her life. But Johnson never showed. Furious, Todd wrote a bitter e-mail to the next in command.
After that, Johnson spread rumors that Todd was "not a team player." Post threatened his life, calling him "black son of a bitch," according to Todd's lawsuit.
Eventually, the department opened an unofficial investigation . . . into Todd.
Demoralized, Todd left. He joined the Vermont State Police, where he investigates child abuse. But he complained about the racial profiling and a hostile work environment. City officials asked Tremblay to investigate.
Tremblay uncovered evidence of bad behavior well beyond racial profiling: Johnson punched a black 16-year-old in a jail cell, but the video of it disappeared. Other allegations surfaced as well: Johnson stole meat from the Elks Club and cheated a local grocery store out of more than $1,000.
Although Tremblay concluded that their conduct didn't rise to the level of a crime, his report was damning enough for Post to resign and Johnson to retire — with benefits. (Their lawyers declined to comment or did not return calls.)
Tremblay's report was so damning, in fact, that the city of Rutland kept it secret. The report hasn't seen the light of day – until now.
That's why Todd filed this lawsuit: to show the world what racist policing looks like, and how it can rot a police department from the inside out.
"If you don't catch police misconduct and hold people accountable, your police department begins to decay," said Harris, the expert on racial profiling.
If Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is serious about confronting institutionalized racism, this would be the perfect place to start.