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AG Reopens Investigation Into St. Albans Cop Who Allegedly Pepper Sprayed Handcuffed Man

Attorney General TJ Donovan at a podium during a press conference.
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, seen in this Nov. 8, 2019 photo, took the unusual step of reopening an investigation into a former St. Albans cop who allegedly pepper sprayed a handcuffed man.

In recent months, the St. Albans Police department has been scrutinized after a high profile case in which a cop allegedly punched a handcuffed woman in the face. The officer was fired and the Attorney General filed assault charges.

However, this wasn’t the first time something like that happened at the department. A similar case, not publicly reported until now, quietly played out at the department years before and didn’t result in criminal charges. Now, prosecutors have reopened the case.

In Nov. 2017, Cpl. Joel Daugreilh allegedly pepper sprayed a man who was handcuffed in a holding cell at the St. Albans police station. The man was sprayed in the eyes and did not suffer any permanent injuries, according to the attorney general’s office.

Generally, police are allowed to use force if they’re in danger or public safety is at risk. When a person is in police custody and handcuffed, the threshold for using force goes down according to St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud.

“The sergeant [on duty] made the determination in reviewing this matter, that was at the police station, that it was quite clearly over the line and there was no cause for it,” Cloud said.

The city launched an investigation and referred the case to the state police and the attorney general’s office for a separate, criminal inquiry.

The city was in the middle of its review when Daugreilh resigned, Cloud said. “We just got about a third of the way through, and I think he read the writing on the wall.”

The man who was pepper sprayed did not file any complaints or litigation against the city, according to Cloud.

In July 2018, Attorney General TJ Donovan decided not to prosecute Daugreilh. But this month, in an unusual move, Donovan reopened the investigation after VPR asked to review the case.

"I said, 'I think I might have gotten this wrong.'" — Attorney General TJ Donovan on the Daugreilh case

Daugreilh declined to comment for this story.

While preparing to release documents to VPR, Donovan said his office found new information.

“That prompted me to now ask more questions," Donovan said, "which prompted me to reopen the investigation, because I said, 'I think I might have gotten this wrong.”

A new expert will review the case and issue an opinion in a couple of weeks, Donovan said. He also promised to release body camera footage of the incident, regardless of whether his office files charges.

The 2017 incident with Daugreilh is similar to the more recent case in St Albans. Last year, Seven Days reported former police Sgt. Jason Lawton punched a handcuffed woman being held at the station. That incident stayed under the radar until the American Civil Liberties of Vermont requested the body camera footage.

Lawton was eventually fired, and the attorney general charged him with simple assault in November. Lawton pleaded not guilty.

Cloud, the St. Albans city manager, said he does not think the police department has a culture problem.

"We're having conversations about officers who don't work here anymore, who were held accountable for their actions, and all the evidence that I have seen shows that we're working like heck to communicate the expectations to our officers about what's appropriate and what's not." — Dominic Cloud, St. Albans City Manager

“We’re having conversations about officers who don’t work here anymore, who were held accountable for their actions,” Cloud said. “All the evidence that I have seen shows that we’re working like heck to communicate the expectations to our officers about what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

In Vermont and around the country, it’s rare for police officers to be charged for using excessive force.

As attorney general, Donovan has reviewed 17 police shootings and use of force incidents and only brought charges in one of those cases - Lawton's.

Albert Fox, the attorney for Amy Connelly — the woman who is seen being punched by Lawton in body cam footage — said he was pleased the attorney general decided to charge Lawton. But Fox said it’s difficult to prosecute police.

“I think the Connelly case was about as blatant as you could have something be and still took a media firestorm and quite some time to even get a misdemeanor charge filed,” Fox said.

Advocates for criminal justice reform, like the ACLU, say the legal standard for reviewing police use of force should change.

ACLU of Vermont staff attorney Lia Ernst said the current approach only looks at the few seconds around the use of force, “rather than contextualizing the entire situation" to determine if the officer's actions escalated the situation or if there was a "a de-escalation technique could have been used that would have avoided the need for force altogether.”

"I think the Connelly case was about as blatant as you could have something be and still took a media firestorm and quite some time to even get a misdemeanor charge filed."— Albert Fox, attorney for a woman who was punched by former St. Albans cop Jason Lawton

“I think that’s a much more important conversation and unfortunately one that’s being short circuited by the way the law is being applied,” Ernst said.

Donovan said he stands by the decisions he made in the other use-of-force incidents and police shootings, and he doesn’t expect to reopen any more cases.

But Donovan appears open to changing the use-of-force standard in Vermont. He said the Daugreilh case and others have troubled him.

“I think we need to look at the law when it comes to how we define when use of force is deemed reasonable or unreasonable, because we're looking really at just the last few seconds of an incident,” Donovan said. “I think we need to broaden that and look at the totality of circumstances.”

Donovan said he hopes the Legislature will hold a hearing on the issue this year.

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