What would you do if you were police chief, and video surfaced of your officers… doing this?
In most places, the answer comes down to “obfuscate and run out the clock.” It even shows in what people call this: defense lawyers and, God help us, “community activists,” call it “police brutality.” Even the most censorious and judgmental cops call it “excessive force,” recognizing that in police work, especially with intoxicated, noncompliant suspects, sometimes force is necessary, but a good man keeps a lid on it. These guys recognized no lid.
So, you’re the Chief, what do you do? Remember, too, you have to lead this department and every officer will want to know whether your actions show intolerance of bad behavior, or just a white shirt who doesn’t have any of his blue shirt’s backs. What do you do?
Here’s what Lee Bitomski, the Chief (he was #2 at time of the incident, but the then-Chief retired before it came to light) in the small, decidedly blue-collar beach town of Seabrook, New Hampshire, did, according to Seacoast Online:
The town fired two of its police officers and reprimanded two others Wednesday for their involvement in or failure to report an alleged police brutality incident that occurred inside the station.
Police Chief Lee Bitomske has previously described the assault of then-19-year-old Michael Bergeron Jr. as a “dark cloud” that was hanging over the department since station surveillance video of the incident went viral in January..
He and other officials said Wednesday, though, that the termination of officers Mark Richardson and Adam Laurent, the two-day suspension of Officer Keith Dietenhofer and the demotion of Lt. John Wasson, the three officers’ supervisor, may have “lifted” that cloud.
The two guys who were fired are Richardson, the big gorilla who slams the stoned kid’s face into the wall, and Laurent, the guy who pepper-sprays him after his second bounce off the wall and down. Dietenhofer and Wasson were complicit more in the non-reporting and cover-up of the incident, and Wasson, who before the incident was exposed was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant wasn’t just “demoted,” he rocketed all the way back down to Patrolman for his failure of ethical leadership in this case.
Dietenhofer was not fired, because his report was more a lie of omission than commission, but the report was critical enough of his integrity that he will have considerable difficulty testifying in cases contested by capable criminal defense attorneys.
Laurent’s stated reason for spraying Bergeron was interesting: he had observed that a person can’t spit after being sprayed, and Bergeron had been trying to spit on the cops. He didn’t do that any more after he got a face full of wall followed by pepper spray. But other facets of Laurent’s report and testimony are contradicted by the video, calling his credibility into question.
Richardson also faces criminal charges for assault while a police officer, which is a specific crime in New Hampshire. (Everybody holds cops to a higher standard, but the Granite State writes it into the law books).
Is that a perfect outcome? We don’t know. We have read the independent report (a very good technique for a small PD that’s too little and too tight to do its own internal investigation, by the way) and we’ll let you read it yourself and draw your own conclusions. The report does make it clear that Bergeron (the kid who dents the concrete-block wall with his face) was a problem suspect, alternatively cooperative and belligerent, but it also makes it clear that the officers were wrong, did wrong, and knew they did wrong. Here it is:
So is the outcome (one charge, two firings, one big demotion, one small suspension) perfect? Probably not. But we do think it’s about as good as you can expect from a government agency. Compare, for example:
- Who’s been demoted and fired in the VA’s policies that scammed the taxpayers out of millions in undeserved bonuses, and led to the deaths of scores if not hundreds of deaths? Nobody and no one.
- Who’s been fired in the ATF’s gunwalking operations, still not fully exposed, which provided thousands of powerful weapons to ATF pals in Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations, guns that have gone on to be used in the murders of at least two US Federal Agents and literally hundreds of Mexicans? Nobody and no one.
- And who’s been fired in the egregious case where an untrained cop on an untrained SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade in a 19-month-old baby’s crib? Nobody. No one. (Aside: in that case, the baby’s come home, having relearned to walk after suffering from burns, a coma, and possibly some degree of permanent brain damage — something you’ll only learn in the English press as our guys are too busy pitching in on Hillary!’s book tour).
The key failure, and the key problem, of representative government and particularly of law enforcement in the 21st Century is Accountability.
Bergeron, the suspect, asked to play this video at his trial. The judge said no, so after the trial was over he put it on YouTube, where it went viral — and ultimately unleashed this investigation, and these consequences. Truth wants a way out. And everybody knew the truth of it.
Officer Dietenhofer said as he recalled his thoughts about the incident that he was concerned
about Bergeron after he was sprayed with OC, also thinking “oh, shit, that must have hurt”
referring to the slam against the wall.
A wall, by the way, has a lot of utility as a weapon. You just have to use it when your use of force is justified. Officer Richardson, the 6’6″ 270-lb cop who applied the wall to the face of the 6’2″ 145-pound Bergeron, gets to make that argument to a jury of his peers soon. We would not exchange places with him.
We recognize it’s hard to make hairsplitting decisions about use of force when some mouthy kid is trying to spit on you, and full of beer (or drug) muscles and the associated belligerence. But that’s just when you have to do it. It’s not fair at all, but there it is.
Now, you might wonder what happened to Michael Bergeron, the belligerent teenage suspect who got his belligerence knocked out of him that night in 2009, and went on to post the video that started a couple of misfit cops on their way to a more suitable career. We wish we could report he went to MIT and is a research chemist, but you probably know that’s not coming — any research chemistry he ever did was of the recreational pharmaceutical variety.
Presently, he’s doing 3 1/2 to 7 in state prison for burglary. One supposes you could argue that the cops beat him into criminality, but what are the odds? More likely, he’s living proof that sometimes a second chance is wasted on a guy.
This post has been updated from its original posting. We replaced the image-based .pdf of the Seabrook report with an OCR’d version that allows you to select and copy text. We haven’t checked the OCR, but it’s usually pretty good with the program we use. -Eds.
Update II — we added some links to Bergeron’s unrelated criminal cases. He appears to be a career burglar (or maybe more comprehensively, a career druggie who supports his habit with burglary).