Residents of this small town had complained about the police for years, with no results, until a suspect was allegedly tortured in custody for refusing to spit out his chewing tobacco.
An investigation was ordered, and now two of the town's three full-time officers--including the chief--face criminal charges and four of 10 part-time officers have resigned for undisclosed reasons. Charges are also pending against two part-time officers. The officers facing criminal charges are on administrative leave pending resolution of their cases.
The town of 5,600 residents about 10 miles south of Montpelier is left with one full-time officer and six part-timers. And the full-timer, Donald McCormick, has just returned from a 10-day suspension after a sexual harassment allegation, said Municipal Manager Kevin O'Donnell.
More than 50 residents turned out for a meeting earlier this month to demand answers from the town's governing Board of Selectmen.
"People right now have lots of questions," said the Rev. Edward DeLong, pastor of the United Church of Northfield. "There needs to be some forum where people can get those questions answered."
O'Donnell blames the town's troubles on a group of 30 or so malcontents who have trivial gripes against the police.
"An officer was responding to a call and the question is why was he driving so fast," O'Donnell said.
But residents have a series of complaints about the local police, complaints that came to a head on New Year's Day. That's when Officers Timothy Trono and Brian Elwell allegedly used a stun gun on a handcuffed Raymond Boyce after he refused to spit out his chewing tobacco.
Boyce's stepmother, Pam Boyce, sought help from the town's grand juror, Chuck Slocum. Under Vermont law, a grand juror has a prosecutor's authority to conduct investigations, and that's what Slocum decided to do.
Slocum collected statements and photographs of the 19-year-old Boyce's wounds and went to the state police.
Slocum, a former police officer forced to retire because of a disability, said the officers had no reason to make Boyce spit out his chew. "They were just being mean, as far as I can tell," he said.
After an eight-week investigation, state troopers rolled into town on March 11 and arrested four officers.
Trono and Elwell are each charged with misdemeanor simple assault; they face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted. They were released on their own recognizance. No court dates have been set.
Kenneth Falcone, a part-time officer, is charged with misdemeanor unlawful mischief for allegedly firing two shots into a store owned by a man who had been feuding with the town police for years. Falcone could face a $500 fine and six months in jail if convicted.
Police Chief Michael O'Neill is charged with obstruction of justice in connection with the alleged store shooting. He faces five years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted.
William Oren, who owns the store Falcone allegedly shot at last fall, said town officials have ignored residents' complaints for years.
Oren says he has complained about police confiscating fireworks and using them at private parties; raising funds for the daughters of a woman missing since last August and not turning the money over to the family, and failing to keep adequate records of confiscated drugs.
The discontent finally seemed to coalesce around Boyce's arrest.
"I think it is more symptomatic of a lot of feeling in town than just that these are a few malcontents," said Richmond Moot, chairman of the selectmen. "This is pretty deep-seated."