A Burlington police officer is suing the state for brain injuries she suffered during training at the Vermont Police Academy in 2017.
In a complaint filed in Chittenden County civil court on Dec. 31, Erin Bartle, through her attorneys at Gravel & Shea, said she was required to participate in a training exercise that resulted in her being punched in the head multiple times.
The complaint said Bartle suffered brain injuries three times from the exercise, and is seeking damages “in an amount to be determined about the trier of fact.”
A letter sent by Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo to members of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council (VCJTC) in October asked the council to investigate what’s called the “Hitchhiker Scenario,” the part of the training that allegedly caused multiple brain injuries.
“Seizing this opportunity can serve the interests of the recruits entrusted to our care and confirm the public trust given to Vermont’s police agencies,” del Pozo wrote.
The complaint describes the “Hitchhiker Scenario” as an exercise in which a trainer, playing the part of a hitchhiker, was a man “highly trained and skilled in martial arts.”
During the exercise, Bartle, playing the role of a police officer, asked the “hitchhiker” for identification. When Bartle looked down to take the identification, the trainer punched her in the side of the head.
Bartle was required to try the scenario again the same day. The second time, the trainer punched her in the head multiple times “with great force, knocking her to her knees, causing her to nearly lose consciousness and immediately inducing a second brain injury, a second concussion,” the complaint said.
Bartle said there was a third “Hitchhiker Scenario” the next week. She was repeatedly punched in the head during the third exercise.
“The staff and the trainees knew or should have known that punishing trainees who bent over to take identification with blows to the head was likely to cause serious physical injury to trainees through the force of impact,” the complaint said.
Burlington attorney Jerome O’Neill, of Gravel & Shea, said the VCJTC staff should have known the danger presented by the training exercise.
“They ran the risk of creating a brain injury. They had to know they were doing that but they kept on doing it. This was the approved academy way of teaching people not to reach down when they took the driver’s license, it’s a piece of paper that was part of the training, from the ‘hitchhiker.’ How you could ever think that causing someone a brain injury to teach them not to react in this way is very difficult to understand,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said training should not be designed to hurt recruits.
In June, del Pozo sent an email to Richard Gauthier, executive director of the VCJTC, suggesting an investigation of the “Hitchhiker Scenario” and questions that could be asked.
“To me, the bigger questions are, what type of judgments led supervisors and staff to believe this scenario was acceptable in the first place and then once the serious risks were actually demonstrated, why they elected to continue it without any sort of modification? I am also alarmed the people who seem to have clearly needed medical attention were not directed to receive it as an order. Several people were seriously injured in a way that seems avoidable,” del Pozo wrote.
In September, Gauthier, who did not return a call on Monday seeking comment, wrote to del Pozo to say VCJTC council members had told him to contact the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training to ask for the names of people qualified to assess Vermont’s training.
Gauthier wrote that the council is “not going to conduct an internal review into the contents of your complaint.”
O’Neill said Bartle is suing the state for negligence because she was injured in ways that could have been prevented.
“The Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council needs to take a hard look at the operations of the Vermont Police Academy and determine whether or not it is being correctly run when you have these kinds of injuries,” he said.
O’Neill said Bartle has to wear hearing aids because of her injuries but continues to serve as a police officer in Burlington.
O’Neill said the reason the “Hitchhiker Scenario” was allowed to continue was because it became a form of what he called “hazing.”
“Somebody’s who’s being hazed doesn’t want to complain. They don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to cause a problem. They want to be part of the team. They want to go forward. These trainees all want to be police officers,” he said.
O’Neill said there were others in Bartle’s class who also suffered brain injuries, which he said he believes establishes a pattern.