Vermont city of Vergennes tried to confront race and policing—and it imploded
The Daily Beast
August 6, 2020
The county sheriff says the chief of police should be fired, while city government has ground to a halt. One resident says the crisis in Vergennes is a “microcosm of America.”
Alicia Grangent is not comfortable walking her dog in Vergennes, Vermont, where she has lived for four years. “I pick her up, and take her to Burlington. There is not a welcoming vibe here,” Grangent, who is Black, told The Daily Beast.
She finally “felt like a resident” of the city on June 6, when a large crowd amassed in the park to silently protest the killing of George Floyd. That heartening show of solidarity aside, “I don’t consider Vergennes ‘home,’” Grangent said.
Was this down to the racism she felt in Vergennes? “Yes, it is,” said Grangent. “It’s a lack of acceptance. It’s that feeling of walking down the street, crossing someone’s path, saying hello to them, and them looking at you as if to say, ‘Why is she talking to me?’ It’s that feeling of not feeling welcome in your own living environment.”
Vergennes is in the midst of a municipal crisis that encompasses race, policing, the proposed civilian oversight of the city’s police force, and trying to recover from a breakdown of local governance.
The complex crises afflicting Vermont’s smallest city (population: around 2,600) have led to the resignation of its mayor; and following a critical mass of resignations by four aldermen, it currently has no functioning city council. In charge of the city—before a special election is held on Sept. 22, and its legislative body returned to life—are a widely mistrusted and criticized city manager and a chief of police whose resignation or firing is being sought by the county sheriff, who says he finds the chief of police “disgusting.”
The county sheriff and many locals are also looking to the state authorities to intervene, both in the crisis facing Vergennes’ city government and in how the police department is being run.
The Vermont secretary of state’s office told The Daily Beast that Vergennes will have to govern itself out of what it presently faces. The Vermont attorney general’s office has so far stayed silent on what, if any, action it is taking regarding the chief of police and policing in the city more generally.
“This town tearing itself apart feels like a microcosm of America,” one resident said. “But people love living here, so we hope it can put itself back together again—and better this time.”
The resident did not want to give The Daily Beast their name because the Vergennes police department scares them. “The city tried to do the right thing in this moment of Black Lives Matter, but the internal workings of the city, and state, along with resistance from people with power within the city thwarted it,” the resident said.
In announcing the date of the special election, State Representative Diane Lanpher—who has lived in Vergennes for 36 years, and who represents Addison-3, which encompasses the communities of Ferrisburgh, Vergennes, Panton, Waltham, and Addison—told residents via an email on Wednesday: “Candidates are working together, and with honest work Vergennes will be back on track.”
“Small-town police are perhaps even harder to govern than big cities”
The crises started with a tense online showdown between the town’s mayor, his deputy, and the city manager. The protests around Floyd’s killing led Vergennes’ then-mayor Jeff Fritz to form an exploratory committee in June to see what kind of civilian oversight could prove effective for Vergennes’ police department, led by Chief George Merkel.
Then, suddenly, a Special Council Meeting was called on July 16, open to all in the city, to discuss “accusations that the Vergennes Police Department is demoralizing and intimidating people.” The words were Mayor Fritz’s, sent to City Manager Daniel Hofman in a private text message and used by Hofman to frame the meeting.
What unfolded in the meeting, which was conducted over Zoom, was dramatic. Instead of a discussion about race, policing, and the local community, within minutes Mayor Fritz had offered to resign (he finally did on July 23), the victim of an apparent coup by Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly, who is now the mayor, and Hofman, who showed the public meeting copies of offensive texts Fritz had sent to Hofman about Donnelly.
These included Fritz saying he didn’t “give two shits about their morale. They’ve been demoralizing citizens long enough,” referring to the police. If Donnelly “doesn’t simmer down,” Fritz said he would take “her to the woodshed,” along with David Austin, who was sitting alongside her in the meeting and who is one of the three aldermen who remains on the non-functioning council.
Nial Rele, the only person of color to speak in the meeting and a member of the exploratory committee, was interrupted as he spoke by a voice originating from what appeared to be Police Chief Merkel’s “Patrol” Zoom account. “Why are they still letting him talk?” the voice asked. So far Rele has received no apology from Hofman or Merkel. Rele has now demanded an official investigation into what happened. Over 200 residents have signed a petition seeking an explanation for how the council meeting was handled.
Some locals, while in no way condoning and defending Mayor Fritz’s texts, feel he was effectively forced from his job as he had been the prime supporter of the exploratory committee that was examining the funding, staffing, and workings of the Vergennes Police Department, under the leadership of Chief Merkel. Fritz and many residents believe getting rid of him is part of a larger plan to derail civilian oversight, and larger reform, of the town’s police.
Those same locals believe that Merkel is resistant to the kind of change—principally, less money for the police, less staff, and more civilian oversight—that those seeking change want to see introduced.
Peter D. Newton, the sheriff of Addison County, within which Vergennes is situated, told The Daily Beast that Chief Merkel should resign, or be fired.
Newton has conducted an investigation into Merkel, the findings of which he passed to Vermont State Police (VSP)—who then passed their findings to the Vermont attorney general—alleging professional misconduct.
Sheriff Newton is “frustrated” that this report, so far, has not been acted upon by any of the relevant authorities. Newton added that City Manager Hofman was, in his view, guilty of “obstruction of justice” in refusing to look into the charges.
Chief Merkel has not responded to repeated requests for comment about this and other matters from The Daily Beast.
City Manager Hofman has also declined to answer repeated, detailed requests for comment about his conduct, informing the Daily Beast twice that he was too busy. Hofman is presently running Vergennes without any official oversight.
“I hope the alarm bells are ringing at the state level, because the actions of what is left of our city government are actively hurting our community,” Rele told The Daily Beast. “It is my view that the community’s trust in our current city leadership has eroded beyond repair.”
Jenny Prosser, Vermont’s general counsel, speaking for Secretary of State Jim Condos, told The Daily Beast that the state is not planning on intervening in what had happened in Vergennes.
“The secretary of state does not have oversight, although we can help people in the city locate relevant statutes. Vermont is different to most states. There isn’t state oversight over towns in Vermont.”
“Of course we’re concerned about any city or town losing trust in their local government,” said Prosser. “We will do our best to direct them for help. To change laws, people should vote in the special election, and lobby their legislators and legislature.”
Alicia Grangent, who is a member of the exploratory committee, feels like she was “lured into a trap” at the July 16 meeting, believing they would be discussing policing.
“It was very tasteless,” said Grangent. “I don’t know the dynamics of the City Council, but I would say it did have something to do with derailing our committee and the proposed civilian oversight board.”
Grangent does not believe Chief Merkel “to be open to a lot of things. I think he has the veneer of being large and in charge. He would not appreciate any type of micromanagement whatsoever, or any type of oversight in his police department.
“I do believe oversight is needed. When you look at the budget of Vergennes’ police department, it is very high compared to the rest of the state, and we are not 24/7 operated, so I am not sure what they are doing with that money.”
“What’s fascinating is how this town, like so many others in the U.S., is becoming unhinged at the questioning of police authority and practice,” one resident told The Daily Beast. “Small town police are perhaps even harder to govern than big cities due to lack of oversight, deep personal ‘small town’ relationships between officials, and a serious gap in state and local laws.”
“The data shows how real bias is in our city”
Black Lives Matter protests occurred in Vergennes just as they did across the United States after Floyd’s killing. In Vergennes, Black residents like Rose Archer and Alicia Grangent gave powerful speeches about their experiences living there, as reported in the local newspaper, the Addison Independent.
Vergennes is also not alone in attempting, as a city or town, to contemplate civilian oversight of the police as one practical response to Floyd’s death. Similar oversight has also been proposed in municipalities including Phoenix, Arizona; East Lansing, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Before the explosive council meeting of July 16 and the subsequent collapse of city government in Vergennes, Fritz and many residents had made clear their feelings that the police department, whose funding has increased by 156 percent in the last six years, needed to change.
The foundation of their call was the 2017 report, Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont, which found marked racial disparities in how Black and Hispanic drivers were treated by police in the state.
Professors Stephanie Seguino (University of Vermont) and Nancy Brooks (Cornell University) conceived the study after the passing of a 2014 bill requiring all Vermont law enforcement agencies to collect traffic stop data in order to make it possible to identify and track any racial disparities in policing. Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont uses the first round of data that became available in 2016.
The study found that at the state level, Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive a citation once stopped than white or Asian drivers. The Black arrest rate was almost double the white arrest rate. Black drivers were four times more likely to be searched, subsequent to a stop, than white drivers. Hispanic drivers were almost three times more likely to be searched.
The authors wrote, “At the extreme is Vergennes, where Black drivers are stopped at a rate that is almost 3 times their estimated share of the county population, followed by Bennington, where the Black share of stops is almost 2.5 times greater than their share of the county population.”
At a Vergennes police forum held in June that was open to the public, Chief Merkel said the statistics were “flawed,” and claimed “transient” drivers using Route 22A which goes through the city had skewed the statistics.
In a follow-up report, published in 2018, the authors responded to the criticism. The 2017 data was not “systematically flawed,” the authors claimed, as they re-analyzed their data according to the methodological querying of the cops. “The use of more rigorous statistical techniques therefore does not alter the nature of our 2017 findings.”
The authors concluded: “These disparities should be of great concern to law enforcement agencies, communities, and legislators. While the disparities in no way suggest that agencies are intentionally profiling people of color, they do indicate the necessity for law enforcement to be self-reflective about their policing practices and to interrogate the role of implicit bias in decision-making.”
At the June police forum, Merkel insisted, “We don’t issue tickets by virtue of race or anything else. If you’re speeding through town, you get stopped. Nine times out of ten we can’t see who’s driving the car until they’re upon us.”
Merkel said he felt “comfortable” with Vergennes’ police officers “because I know them. That doesn’t mean I accept it blindly and don’t look into things. I do. I hold my guys accountable.” He was “at a loss” to address how the department could cost less.
He said there were no people of color employed in the police department, and only one woman. “I take the best candidate,” Merkel told the meeting. “Gender or race are not specific to me.”
“Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont was a shocker to us,” State Representative Lanpher told The Daily Beast.
“We looked at a mirror through the data and were not happy with what we saw. My response was to say, ‘This is appalling, let’s dig into the data.’ What happened was the opposite: There was a retrenching by the police, and a defensiveness, which didn’t help the situation at all, a response of ‘We don’t believe the data.’”
In 2019, there was a proposal to cut the city’s police budget by a sum roughly equivalent to two police officers. Former mayor Fritz told The Daily Beast it had “decent support” among the city council but at the discussion Merkel and his officers had stood in the room, dressed in their uniforms. Some present had found it “intimidating.” Fritz said, “You don’t ask all your officers to come to a city meeting if you are not making some kind of statement.”
At the time, Donnelly, the new mayor, said that Fritz’s proposed cut to police funding was a “horrible decision.” The council voted against it.
Instead of cutting the police budget, the council voted to increase the municipal tax. Fritz is adamant that his intentions were “inclusive” when he proposed setting up the Citizen Review Board Exploratory Committee (CBREC).
“The big question is why we spend $850,000 a year, plus a $72,000 bond, on a police department for 2,600 people in a town that is only two square miles,” said Fritz.
Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days reported that Donnelly had distributed signs this summer that read, “We Support Our Local Police,” which were often placed next to Black Lives Matter signs. “With the morale of the poor police right now, I [thought] it was a great idea,” Donnelly told Seven Days.
In an introductory speech to the July 16 Zoom meeting, Fritz said that Floyd’s killing had made an “increased scrutiny” of policing necessary.
Fritz said he was unaware of specific complaints against the police in Vergennes, “but I know there are many people who are intimidated by the police. There should be no reason to be intimidated by those who serve and protect us. I know I find the Chief reasonable and approachable, but not everyone feels that way.”
After the texts were read, Donnelly read a statement accusing Fritz of “grossly abusing” his position as mayor. Vergennes had “the best police department as it exists today,” she insisted, adding that Fritz was “dividing the city.” She accused the mayor of threatening her and the others in the texts.
Fritz said they could end the conversation quickly if the City Council members present agreed he should resign. A vote was carried, and Fritz exited the meeting.
Donnelly was declared the mayor and said she did not want to hear any accusations “unless you can prove them.” (Donnelly declined The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. Alderman Austin did not return a Daily Beast request for comment.)
Catherine Brooks, the chair of the exploratory committee, also resigned during the Zoom call “in honor of my health.” Like many, Brooks did not believe a new system for fielding complaints about the police, set up by Hofman and Chief Merkel, should direct those complaints to the police themselves. Another speaker noted Donnelly had invited people to her home for the meeting, in apparent contravention of COVID-related guidance.
Rele was speaking about being almost the same age as Philando Castile, who was 32 when he died and had been stopped by police 45 times in his car.
It was then that the voice from the “Patrol” account said, “Why are they still letting him talk?”
Donnelly tried to stop Rele from speaking. Rele insisted he be allowed to finish.
“The data is telling us there is an issue here,” said Rele. Vergennes had an opportunity to tackle the implicit bias present in its policing, he added. “God forbid if something were to happen in Vergennes.”
It was not “lost” on Rele that he, a person of color, was in the middle of a story about a Black man being killed when the Zoom interruption came, he told The Daily Beast after the meeting.
The comment was “Why don’t they make him stop talking?”, said Rele, not “Why doesn’t he shut up?”
“Inherently, right there, is a story about power,” said Rele. “And the call was responded to with the exact activation of that power from the three people who held the most power in the conversation—Lynn Donnelly, Daniel Hofman, and Chief Merkel—to stop me talking, although I wouldn’t let them.” “It made it even more hurtful, that it happened at that moment of talking about Philando Castile,” said Rele. “The intimidation in Vergennes is real, and it is happening in ways you can see in that meeting and happening in ways which you cannot see.”
Rele, who grew up in India, Nigeria, and big cities, came to Vermont as a college student and later to live, “because I never found the heart of a community like I found here. I love Vergennes.”
In the meeting, with no apology or explanation to Rele, Merkel—who was appointed chief of police in November 2009—repeated he considered the statistics flawed. He said it was “fine” if any citizen’s advisory board was formed. He acknowledged the movement that had grown after George Floyd’s death and was “glad to have any conversation about that.”
Merkel said he would work with anyone “to make our department better.” Someone who knew Merkel closely for many years as police chief, and who requested anonymity, said, “He was very good at telling you one thing, or what he thought you wanted to hear, then going off and doing whatever he wanted.”
“This was an effort to quiet me, because I am asking a tough question of the police”
Jeff Fritz moved to Vergennes with his partner (now husband) Andrew in 2011. His two-year term as mayor began in March 2019, and many residents who spoke to The Daily Beast welcomed his commitment to the city and work he had done for it.
“This was an effort to quiet me,” said Fritz of what had happened at the meeting, “because I am asking a tough question of the police.”
He regretted the texts, he said. Fritz said he intended “going to the woodshed” to mean going somewhere for a private conversation. “I’m 60 years old, a product of my generation, and I tend to use outdated and not always the best phrases. But it seems pretty clear to me the whole thing was an attempt to deflect from the conversation about policing.”
Did Fritz think homophobia had played a part in the ambush? “I have never felt that outwardly here, but the ambush give me pause frankly. I can’t help but ponder if that is a part of this issue.”
In his resignation letter, council member Mark Koenig said he could “no longer work with people who have lied to me on numerous occasions over the past ten days.” He said it appeared Donnelly and Austin “prefer to focus on insults made behind their backs rather than the procedural and legal concerns that have been raised by residents since that meeting.”
Koenig apologized for supporting the hiring of Hofman. “It seems clear to me now that placing trust and confidence in him was a grave mistake; a mistake for which we are all now paying a high price. In addition, the misinformation and fear-tactics surrounding even the exploration of a police oversight committee is appalling.”
On July 30, Merkel posted a long thank you message to residents supportive of the police on the Vergennes Police Facebook page.
Merkel wrote: “We have always tried to treat people with the utmost respect and courtesy… We have held a number of public forums, yet each and every time the same few people show up. However, we have sought and will continue to seek opportunities to reach out and work with those who genuinely wish to assist us to make our department and community better.”
Supportive residents responded with a variety of messages. One wrote: “We are so thankful for you all! Thank you for all that you continue to do for our little town.”
Vergennes may now be in administrative chaos, but many people talk about how much they love its two square miles. “Everybody knows everybody here, and everybody knows each other’s business,” said one resident. “It’s a very sweet, bucolic place surrounded by rolling mountains and views of the Adirondacks.”
Matt Birong, a Vergennes business-owner and (alongside Lanpher) a state representative for Addison-3, said Vergennes acted as a hub and “main street” for four or five surrounding communities. Not having a working municipal government was critical to people’s lives and livelihoods, such as the man who had just contacted Birong wondering how to get his outdoor liquor license re-approved.
Diane Lanpher said, “The city must resolve the governance issue to just get back on track again. This is not a good look for Vergennes.”
Lanpher sent a letter of complaint to the City Council after the July 16 meeting, where Hofman revealed that the new public complaint form for the police would channel those complaints to the police themselves. “That seems very unusual and highly inappropriate,” she said. “Any complaint should have a third-party review, so people feel safe about coming forward.”
Grangent told The Daily Beast that local people asked her if she would not be more “comfortable” living in the bigger city of Burlington. (The current official statistics say Vergennes is 99.85 percent white, and 0.15 percent Black.)
Grangent said she experienced racism daily in Vergennes. “I live here on the main street. People don’t expect me to take my garbage out to the curb, and live where I live. I do not live where they expect me to live. I see it on their faces. They are surprised a Black woman lives in the middle of town in a house.” Her friend Rose Archer gets the same looks too, said Grangent (Archer did not return calls for comment).
“It’s a triple take,” said Grangent. “They look over their shoulder. The look is, ‘Is she passing through, or does she live here? If she does, why is she here?’ In restaurants, she has to wait to be served “after everyone else has been served. I get a lot of looks. I’m a 5-foot-2-inch Black female. I’m not really that intimidating, but I can throw a really strong facial expression if you look at me crazy.”
“The signs and solidarity” she first saw at demonstrations for Ahmaud Arbery “meant the world to me,” said Grangent. “Initially, I felt sheltered and vulnerable, there wasn’t anyone like me here. Then after George Floyd’s killing, anger set in, and rage.”
Hofman’s responses to complaints about how Rele was treated and his own conduct have been “dismissive,” said Rele, including one sent to his partner. Other residents complained of similarly “dismissive” letters from the city manager in response to their complaints.
Rep. Birong, speaking as a resident and business owner, said, “Right now, I am struggling to see how he has a successful career in this community. I too found his answers to residents upsetting. He should be providing clear answers and solutions. I think Mr. Hofman needs to start engaging with the public differently and start mending some of those broken relationships and guide situations in a more inclusive way.”
County sheriff: Chief Merkel should resign, or be fired
Peter D. Newton, the sheriff of Addison County, told The Daily Beast that “no one wanted to hear what we found” when it came to an investigation of Chief George Merkel.
In a letter sent last month to the City of Vergennes, Newton wrote, “Evidence exists, within your records, of false reporting and violations of bias free policing. It is my belief George Merkel has submitted false time records and has neglected his professional obligation as Chief of Police in violating fair and impartial policing statutes.
“If a valid investigation were conducted, it would show Chief Merkel in violation of 20 V.S.A. 2401 on multiple counts since July 1st, 2018. There is more evidence within your possession that these violations were also committed prior to that time, however, the statute of limitations only allows a retroactive time period of 3 years.”
Newton told The Daily Beast that Merkel had not entered at least 100 traffic stops correctly, which was important given the statistical importance of such stops as analyzed in Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont. Newton says the incorrect entering of traffic stops was “systemic” in the Vergennes PD, and merited further investigation.
Sheriff Newton took his findings to City Manager Hofman.
Newton said that when he presented his findings to Hofman, Hofman threatened him with being charged with presenting false information about a police officer, which raises the question of how Hofman knew the information to be false, and why Hofman didn’t pursue the investigation against the chief. (Again, neither Hofman nor Merkel responded to Daily Beast requests for clarification or comment.)
“People need to know what kind of City Manager they have,” Sheriff Newton said of Hofman. “He doesn’t seem to take things as seriously as he should. He’s not looking at the facts and circumstances. It feels to me that he is protecting the chief rather than taking a serious look at this. He should have done his due diligence. I do believe Chief Merkel and Daniel Hofman are in league together.”
Newton says his investigation into the activities of the city manager are ongoing.
Newton had started investigating Merkel last year after hearing that the Vergennes chief had been approaching neighboring towns to suggest he and his cops take on their policing needs, rather than the county sheriff.
Newton sent his report to the Vermont State Police, even though he was “not comfortable” with the agency investigating it. He wants the state Attorney General to investigate Merkel and the Vergennes police.
In a statement sent to The Daily Beast, a VSP spokesperson said, “Earlier this year, the Addison County sheriff made a report to the city of Vergennes and the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. That report included allegations about compliance with reporting requirements related to bias-free policing data, and accounting related to grant funds. The training council referred the report to the Vermont State Police.
“An exhaustive, comprehensive review of the allegations and the evidence was conducted by detectives from another area of the state. To ensure transparency and a thorough, independent review, the state police has turned over its complete investigative report to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. As that review is ongoing, we are unable to comment further at this time.”
The office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
“I was reluctant to send this to the Attorney General because I felt this would be swept under the rug and not truly investigated. Now that’s what I am feeling is happening,” Sheriff Newton told The Daily Beast.
A reporter asked that if Newton was Merkel’s boss, could he not just fire him if he felt it was merited. “I am the sheriff of the county, but Vergennes is its own police department,” Newton said. “It didn’t feel right as we were looking into this civil lawsuit. I didn’t feel we were the proper agency to do that.”
“They look like German Nazi soldiers, that’s what I think when I see them,” the county sheriff said of Vergennes’ cops. “When I first took over I tried put my people in polo shirts and khakis. Yes, they wore vests, you have to in this day and age. But I said, ‘I want you to be approachable, say ‘hi’ to people. That’s the style of policing I want.”
“I need to make sure the police officers in my county are doing the right thing,” said Newton. “I do not believe George Merkel is doing the right thing in the city of Vergennes. If it was up to me, George Merkel would not be a chief of police.”
Merkel writes on the Vergennes Police Department website that, “We expect the highest degree of competency and dedication from each of our officers and we work diligently to improve our skills, individually and collectively, as professional law enforcement officers. Each officer possesses the highest moral character and conduct themselves accordingly.”
The police department, the site says, “has become recognized as a standard bearer for law enforcement in Vermont.”
Sheriff Newton disagrees. “Vergennes claims to be the most professionally run police department in the state. I think they are the only ones who claim that. I do not think it’s very professionally run. The best thing would be for Chief Merkel to resign. The Attorney General should look at what we found, and seriously think if he should even be a police officer.”
Tim Page, president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, declined to speak to The Daily Beast, or answer a detailed set of questions about Merkel, policing in Vergennes, and civilian oversight.
Addison County state attorney Dennis Wygmans declined to investigate any of the sheriff’s allegations about Merkel. “I am baffled as to why no one wants to take this on,” said Sheriff Newton. “I think people are afraid of George Merkel.”
Newton said Wygmans had refused to investigate Merkel, calling it a “political hot potato.”
“I would refer it to another prosecutor’s office,” Wygmans told The Daily Beast. “I have an obvious conflict of interest. Chief Merkel is an officer under my direction. It is important for an outside agency without any biases to investigate these things.”
Wygmans said all allegations against Chief Merkel should be adjudicated by the Vermont Attorney General—who has so far declined to acknowledge even receiving The Daily Beast’s questions about Merkel and policing in Vergennes, or returned our phone messages.
Wygmans said the Vergennes PD had done “a good job” on the cases they worked on together. As to whether the department was overfunded and staffed, Wygmans said life in the city had “markedly improved” under Merkel, in terms of the quality of life and property prices. The level of funding Vergennes’ PD receives should be voted on by the people of the city, he added. Wygmans agreed that, contrary to what Hofman and Merkel had set up, an independent body was needed to handle complaints against the police in the city.
Rep. Birong said he had a good relationship with Merkel. “He came here when we had a high crime rate about ten years ago. I own a restaurant where there were multiple break-ins. He has done a lot of good with the crime issue. I’ve told him he needs to be willing to evolve.”
Rep. Lanpher said she had had conversations with Chief Merkel about his conduct and bearing. “I’ve said to him, ‘You’re a tall, big man in uniform. You don’t always understand your presence and conversation. You may be passionate, but some people will only hear you speaking in an authoritarian voice. You’re scaring them, and you don’t see it.’”
Lanpher added, “I would think it would behoove him on his side to start to engage, and let go a little bit of the resistance, relax, calm down, and have conversations with people.”
Merkel and the police department “do a terrific job,” insisted Lanpher. She added that while there was anger towards the police by some residents, other residents—as those with the pro-police signs showed—who “are not ready to look at what’s in front of them.”
Nial Rele said that he respects Merkel’s loyalty to his officers, his determination and passion for his work, “but it’s time to step up and truly, honestly be open to this evolution.”
He has found Merkel to be defensive, and the chief has also consistently mispronounced his name (as have Hofman and Donnelly), despite being repeatedly told they have done so.
Sheriff Newton said, “I do not want to take away from the good things that George Merkel has done in making Vergennes a safe place, but the allegations against him—and that this is a systemic thing in the whole Vergennes police department—says to me it needs more attention than the state of Vermont has so far given it.”
For Lanpher, it is “not important” if Chief Merkel does not endorse the idea of civilian oversight. “It just needs to happen. It would be nice if he did, and was co-operative, but we are beyond that.”
“I liken what Vergennes is going through to a family going through a rough patch”
“Everyone in Vermont wants new, young residents in communities,” said Rep. Birong. “People keep saying they want ‘young’ people here. Well, you’ve got to let them have their voice. If they bring uncomfortable voices to the table, that’s what they’re supposed to do. If we want to keep moving forward when it comes to policing and social justice, everyone has to listen and be heard.”
He is optimistic. “I liken what Vergennes is going through to a family going through a rough patch. I know it will heal, but the willingness of people to come back to the table and have hard conversations will dictate the timeline.”
The city of Rutland, 66 km to Vergennes’ south, has had independent police oversight for 33 years. Sean Sargeant, chairman of the five-person Rutland City Police Commission, recently addressed the Vergennes exploratory committee about how it worked.
“We provide oversight of the police department to make sure the people of Rutland and those who come to work and visit here have access to fair and impartial policing and procedural justice,” Sargeant told The Daily Beast. “We do that with only one real power: the commission can hire and fire the police chief. I would encourage the people of Vergennes to not think they need a full suite of powers. We have been very successful in Rutland with that single power.”
Three or five times a month, Sargeant said he and the chief, Brian Kilcullen, met to field complaints from Rutland residents. They look at relevant dashcam or video recordings. If necessary, a complaint is referred to the police’s internal affairs organization for a full investigation.
“The chief and I disagree on things every week. It’s normally not a problem for us, because reasonable people disagree all the time, or they should do,” said Sargeant. “Typically, we talk it out.”
Sargeant said he recognized that the political situation in Vergennes was complicated, but recommended the supporters of civilian oversight put a proposal together and presents it to residents to vote on.
Rutland was “much better” with civilian oversight, Sargeant said.
“In Rutland, 80 percent of the time, calls to the police do not need an officer in a cruiser with a gun and badge. Those situations are better helped with a mental health professional, employment counselor, or expert in food insecurity. We have worked to house those professionals within the police department.”
Civilian oversight has opened up the police to different views, Sargeant said. “Sometimes police departments have to run as quasi military operations, with a chain of command and where every time you respond to a call for service you are armed and wearing body armor. The police have become open to other ways of operating or conducting their duties which don’t necessarily require a militaristic approach. I think that has been important.”
Vergennes’ exploratory committee into police oversight will file its report on August 11. Some members, including Rele, wanted more time to do their work. Officially, the committee will cease to exist on the same day. The committee is expected to deliver a recommendation that Vergennes should adopt some form of citizen review, and make another request that the group be allowed to continue with the purpose of writing a fuller report into how civilian oversight of the police could work in Vergennes.
Rele said he did not want to “drag our city’s reputation through the mud. There is nothing exceptional about the issues we face here. Instead, I hope that it can give folks in other communities across the country some inspiration to speak truth to power and continue to push for positive and sustainable change.”
When we spoke, Alicia Grangent planned to speak to Chief Merkel one-on-one, “sooner rather than later. I want to say to the chief, ‘This is not just about you and me or a white and Black thing, but this is a citizen and human race thing.’ Understanding that first and foremost is what we expect from our politicians, deputies, and City Council members.
“I don’t feel like they get it at this point in time—although I feel really supported by the people at the gatherings in town who have shown support. We just have to come together.”
“Right now, I feel I’m supposed to be here to effect change,” Grangent added. “I have a spiritual connection with staying here at the moment which is stronger than my wont to move.”