ST. ALBANS, Vt. (AP) — A former Vermont police officer recorded on video punching a handcuffed woman in custody pleaded not guilty Monday to a charge of simple assault.
Jason Lawton, of Fletcher, Vermont, was released on conditions, including that he not contact the woman.
The video, some of it from a police body camera and some from a surveillance camera, shows the apparently intoxicated Amy Connelly on March 15 being thrown against a wall in a holding cell at the St. Albans Police Department after she refuses to sit down. Lawton punches her in the face when she stands back up and tries to kick him.
State police said the charges were filed after consulting with the attorney general’s office.
“This punch, which was an upper cut to her face, was totally unnecessary, and it was an act of violence and it was an assault. And it is a crime. And the message here is that nobody is above the law, including the police,” Attorney General T.J. said from the court house on Monday. “And they had a legal obligation to protect her the minute she was in custody. She was defenseless at that time.”
Connelly has pleaded not guilty to simple assault on a police officer, unlawful mischief and disorderly conduct.
Police said they were called to Shooters Bar for a reported female who was heavily intoxicated, had assaulted staff and refused to leave. Police officer Zachary Koch said he transported Connelly to the Saint Albans Police Department for processing. He said while in the holding cell, she started kicking the door which became wedged part-way open, according to court papers.
Lawton opened the door and told her not to kick the door, according to the affidavit from Vermont State Police Sergeant James Wright, who investigated the possible assault. When she stood up gradually he told her to sit down, it states. She said no and Lawton “strikes her in the upper chest with his right forearm pushing her back against the cell wall and bench causing her head to hit the back of the cell wall,” according to the affidavit.
Connelly gets mad and said he hurt her and stands up and appears to try to kick him in the shin, according to Wright.
Lawton immediately strikes her in the upper chest again slamming her back against the cell wall and onto the bench, according to the affidavit. He then “delivers a right upper cut with a closed fist to Connelly’s face,” Wright states.
The force of the blow throws her head back against the cell wall and Lawton takes her to the floor outside the holding cell, where he and another officer forcefully bring her to the ground, the affidavit said.
“You can hear what appears to be her heading hitting the floor in a loud ‘thud,’” said Wright. She is then shackled and EMS is called to treat her. She is taken to the hospital emergency room, where police say she became disorderly with staff.
In court documents, Lawton had said the blow to the face was to gain control of the situation and that it ended her aggressive behavior.
St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said he did not become aware of the details of the altercation until late May when he watched footage of it that was requested by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said he was disturbed by the video and called for an internal investigation. Lawton was fired in July.
Taylor said he has changed the use-of-force reporting since the incident. He said in August that physical exchanges between officers and suspects, even minor ones, must be reviewed by the patrol commanders who will report anything questionable to the chief.
Lawton and his lawyer did not comment while leaving the court house Monday.