State panel finds ‘reasonable grounds’ in Chester Police discrimination case

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Vermont Human Rights Commission has found “reasonable grounds” that a Chester police officer illegally discriminated against a Black man when it stopped him in May of 2019, a claim that the Town of Chester strongly denies.

The final determination letter from the Human Rights Commission

The commission investigates allegations of discrimination under state law to determine whether there are reasonable grounds that unlawful discrimination occurred in a case. While the commission may work to resolve the complaint, it can also authorize staff to file suit “to enforce the public interest.” There is no “direct appeal from a decision” of the commission.

A press release from the Town of Chester, however, asserts that the circumstances, reasons and motivations for the stop “remain to be resolved in a court of law, and are a matter of considerable dispute.”

What seems clear in reading both the VHRC investigative report, written by its attorney Melissa Horwitz, and the town’s response, written by its attorney James F. Carroll, is that on May 10, 2019, Chester Sgt. William Frank was involved in stopping the man as he drove through Chester. The stop was in response to a “Be On the Lookout” or BOL issued by Bellows Falls Police three days earlier, on May 7.

The BOL arose out of an incident reported to Bellows Falls Police in which a complainant told them that a Black man with dreadlocks who was driving a small car had pointed a gun at him after a traffic incident.  The BOL gave the car’s description as a “possible mini cooper, red/maroon, one of those colors, possible stripe on it … had out of state plates.”

According to the report, three days later, Frank noticed a car he believed fit the description that was being driven by Obadiah Jacobs, who is Black and wears his hair in dreadlocks. As Frank followed the car south on Route 103, Jacobs pulled into the car wash. There is some dispute over whether Frank turned on his blue lights before or after Jacobs turned into the car wash.

There is no dispute that Frank drew his firearm and ordered Jacobs out of the car telling him to keep his hands in sight, which Jacobs did. After a brief pat down of Jacobs for a weapon, Frank holstered his gun. There was a short discussion and Jacobs asked to get back in his car to make a call about picking up his daughter. Frank asked to search the car for a weapon before Jacobs made the call and, according to the report, Jacobs gave permission. After searching and finding no weapon, Frank allowed Jacobs to get into the car and make the phone call.

At that time, according to the town, Frank got into his cruiser and waited for a return call from the Bellows Falls Police to see if the BOL was still active. Frank also called Chester Police Chief Rick Cloud, and a few minutes thereafter told Jacobs he could leave.

The Human Rights Commission report says the entire encounter lasted about 18 minutes.

Once Jacobs had left, Frank’s recording device continued to pick up the conversation among Frank and Cloud and an unnamed Vermont State Trooper, both of whom arrived on scene. The trooper, according to both the commission and the town, joked that the name “Obadiah” sounded like an Amish name and that Frank had pulled over a horse and buggy.  According to the commission report, Frank said that Jacobs is Jamaican. He also told Cloud, “I pulled him out at gunpoint. Of course, he is a Black man being treated this way. It is f****** bull****. Whatever.”  The report also said that Frank told Cloud that he had never seen the model of Toyota that Jacobs was driving but that it looked like a Mini Cooper.

The commission report noted that while Jacobs is “Black, had dreadlocks and was driving a red/maroon vehicle,” the vehicle was the wrong make and model and did not have stripes. The report also noted Jacobs’ dreadlocks were bright red, a fact not included in the BOL and one that would have been “difficult” for the original complainant to miss.

On behalf of the Town, Carroll wrote more than 10 pages citing case law to argue that Frank had not discriminated against Jacobs. In the end though the commission did not answer any of Carroll’s legal arguments, instead issuing a “final determination” of reasonable grounds that the town discriminated against Jacobs. All five members voted in favor of the determination.

On Friday, Town Manager Julie Hance issued this press release.

On Tuesday, Hance wrote to The Telegraph, “While the matters relating to the stop are subject to a fair amount of dispute, we should acknowledge that we can always do things better. I have been working with the Police Department to review and update all policies and have called for an internal investigation into the stop in question to ensure that all Police policies in effect at the time of the stop were followed appropriately.”

“I am also working with the Select board on the possible establishment of a police advisory committee that will work with the PD to improve accessibility, communications, accountability, public awareness, transparency and best practices.”

The Telegraph asked attorney Thomas Bixby, who represents Jacobs, for comment. Bixby said he would try to do that before the paper’s editorial deadline, but that it might not be possible.

Calls to the Vermont Human Rights Commission on Tuesday June 1 and Wednesday June 2 were not returned by publication time.

The Telegraph will update this story as needed.

 

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  1. Sue McKnight says:

    Dear Heaven above! If things happened the way this is reported, I must agree this officer was doing what he was hired to do. There’s nothing like muddying up perfectly clear water.

  2. Kathy Vize says:

    The BOL was based on (according to this article) an alleged perp’s description as reported by the alleged victim to the BFPD.

    Should Officer Frank have pulled over white, Asian or Indigenous people driving small, red or maroon cars “possible mini Cooper” which may or may not have had a stripe? Of course not, unless he witnessed them commit a traffic infraction. Officer Frank stopped a man of color who had dreadlocks (BOL as indicated in article does not list hair color) and drove a small Mini Cooper looking vehicle (again, BOL in article is vague) which could have been a Toyota Yaris.

    If an alleged perp is of color, and an officer stops a vehicle based on a BOL for a person of color, how is this racist?

    Officer Frank appears to had been doing the job the taxpayers of Chester hired him to perform, whilst aiding the BFPD.

  3. Ken Bergmann says:

    What a bunch of BALONEY! Thank you Officer Frank for doing your job and protecting the public. The stop was routine and the man was not the BOLO that was sought. He went on his way. No harm done. If you think my vehicle is suspicious, feel free to do your job and pull me over. I promise not to act like an idiot and start a ruckus.

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