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November 01, 2013

Shelburne Police Receive National Distinction, One Driver's Beef Not Withstanding


Might the Shelburne Police Department be one of the finest five-0s in the land? The results are in for the 2013 National Law Enforcement Challenge (NLEC), and Shelburne's force finds itself near the top of the pack. In the category of municipal law enforcement agencies with 11-25 officers, the department is ranked second nationally for the quality of its highway safety initiatives.

According to a press release by the Vermont Department of Public Safety about the national award:

Chief Warden and Sgt. Al Fortin along with the entire uniform and civilian staff have worked tirelessly to develop a strong relationship with the Shelburne community including local students and parents. In addition, the Shelburne Police Department has coordinated special high visibility enforcement campaigns with all of the law enforcement agencies in Chittenden County and elsewhere. These efforts have helped to make the roadways in Chittenden County some of the safest in the state.

One driver might disagree. Rod MacIver, a Monkton artist (pictured above) who has been waging a legal battle with the Shelburne police department since last December, would be hard-pressed to describe his relationship with the force as strong.

In March, he sued the town in Chittenden Superior Court for what he described as several acts of perjury stemming from a traffic stop by Shelburne Officer Jason Lawton last December. This fall, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took on MacIver as their client and brought his case to federal court.

After pulling MacIver over on Route 7 late one night, Lawton claimed that the artist ran a red light at the Allen Road intersection. When MacIver protested the charge that night and later, Lawton and Sergeant Fortin maintained his guilt on multiple occasions. In an email to MacIver on December 27, Fortin wrote:

I reviewed this tape. You were in violation and when you were stopped you asked (screamed at) the officer to issue you the ticket. So please feel free to contest the ticket. I would like the Judge to see your actions at the time of the stop and see what we have to deal with.

When MacIver requested a copy of that video from Lawton’s cruiser cam, however, it became clear that the light had not been red. The judge overturned MacIver’s ticket, and the artist filed a small claims lawsuit against Shelburne, representing himself and calling as witnesses Lawton, Fortin and town manager Paul Bohne.

The July hearing was postponed when none of the Shelburne witnesses showed up. Now that ACLU attorneys have picked up MacIver’s case, the artist predicts the legal proceedings could take more than a year. Filed in U.S. District Court, his suit now only targets Lawton. It seeks damages as well as a ruling that the officer illegally seized MacIver and violated his constitutional right to free speech by writing a ticket when he argued.

Although Bohne has defended the quality of his town's police force, he did write a note of apology to MacIver, acknowledging the discrepancy in the officers' acccounts. “The only thing I’ll say is that I consider his case an aberration,” Bohne told Seven Days in July. “He’s trying to paint the department in one brush, and I don’t believe that at all. I think we’re dealing with a rookie police officer.”

So what has the department done to earn the distinction from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the group that administers the NLEC? The IACP did not respond to Seven Days' request for a comment, but according to its website, the awards are meant to recognize:

...excellent law enforcement traffic safety programs. The program provides law enforcement agencies with an opportunity to make a difference in the communities they serve and allows agencies to learn from one another and establish future goals in traffic safety enforcement and education.

"Overall commitment to public safety is one of the areas we've always done well," says Fortin, explaining that the awards consider components such as policy, training, incentives and public information. "We try to focus on all the different areas, and obviously the judges and the panels that looked at these understand it and award the effort."

Although Fortin declines to speak about the legal proceedings with MacIver, he also doesn't see the case as being representative of his department's overall performance. 

"Obviously I can't comment until after the suit goes through, but should that one thing hinder the public safety stuff that we do? To me that shouldn't affect the issue compared to everything that we successfully try to complete for public safety here. It shouldn't be an issue, as far I’m concerned. It will go the way it goes," Fortin says. 

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