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EXCLUSIVE: Law enforcement testifies that interrogations bill could inhibit solving crimes

By Michael Bielawski,

On Tuesday Thomas Chenette a detective for the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations and Vice President of the Vermont Police Association, informed lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee that their efforts to reign in heavy-handed interrogation tactics are unnecessary and could even inhibit solving crimes.

“I think it’s a little misguided,” Chenette told the committee. “I understand what it’s intended to do. I just don’t think that it’s a problem here in Vermont.”

The bill lawmakers are looking at is S. 285. It is currently only sponsored by Sen. Richard Sears Jr., D-Bennington. As written, it could potentially take tools away from investigators needed to solve crimes.

Its introduction reads, “This bill proposes to prohibit the use of threats, physical harm, or deception in the tactics employed by a law enforcement officer or government agent during the custodial interrogation of a person under 20 years of age.”

It continues, “This bill also proposes that the Vermont Criminal Justice Council creates a model interrogation policy for all law enforcement agencies and constables with law enforcement powers to adopt and incorporate into training that is provided.

Chenette has extensive law enforcement experience, including working in the street crimes unit, the drug unit, the major crimes unit, and now the special investigations unit.

He explained how sometimes investigators rely on tactics such as using a ruse to get a suspect to give up more information. He gave an example of a murder suspect who was eventually convicted of killing another man over an argument ultimately regarding a lost cell phone.

Chenette explained that he knew the girlfriend of the shooter was not cooperating with the investigation but that’s not the impression he gave him during an interrogation.

“So I led him to believe that his girlfriend had cooperated, and I said, ‘She told us that you gave her the gun, she said you told her the heat was on, what was the heat about?’”

Chenette explained that while this tactic didn’t ultimately lead to a confession, it still provided opportunities to further advance the case against him.

“He did break his storyline,” he said. “Then the Jekyll and Hyde side of his personality came out, he became extremely emotional, he punched his fist into the table, and it just spun him in a different direction where I was able to get him off his story.”

He added, “Even though he didn’t make an admission to me, him showing that he can at the drop of a hat can become extremely violent was important and I don’t think I would have gotten that out of him without using that as a ruse.”

A lawmaker expressed concern about potential retaliation against the girlfriend if he was released. Chenette responded that by the time of this interrogation, the suspect was already being held on federal gun charges so that wasn’t determined to be a risk.

Chenette further explained that the type of heavy-handed tactics described as prohibited in this bill already rarely if ever occur.

“We were all trained the same way and in the bill as written what is described as heavy-handed interrogation tactics, those aren’t used,” he said. “In 19 years I have not seen them.”

One lawmaker asked if anything such as physical threats are allowed during an interrogation. Chenette responded that not only is it illegal, but the constant video surveillance is a major deterrent for any such behavior.

Chenette explained that his main concern regarding current law enforcement trends is that real criminals are getting lenient treatment.

“The things that I lose sleep over isn’t someone that I wasn’t able to charge because they didn’t confess, it’s things like blanket expungements of major crimes,” he said. … “Or someone who admits to being a child abuser or someone who has groomed a child and sexually assaulted that child numerous times and instead of getting years on their sentence from a mandatory minimum it gets reduced to some months.”

Also, Shawn Burke, the Chief of the South Burlington Police Department and member of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, testified as well. His whole testimony can be heard starting at about 38 minutes into this committee session.

The author is a writer for the Vermont Daily Chronicle


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