MONTPELIER, Vt. — The head of the Vermont Police Academy said Tuesday the organization is going to stop using a training exercise that caused head and other injuries for some of the recruits who went through the program.
Richard Gauthier, the executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, which oversees that Pittsford Academy, tells Vermont Public Radio the decision to stop using the "hitchhiker drill" was made Monday, but it had nothing to do with the lawsuit filed by a Burlington police officer. He says that with all the attention focused on the drill, the element of surprise is lost.
"It's (the) same as if you took one of our criminal law quizzes and published" it, he said.
Last week, Burlington Police Officer Erin Bartle sued the state of Vermont for head injuries she suffered while participating in the hitchhiker drill.
In her lawsuit, Bartle, who began training in February 2017, said she was hit in the head by the trainer when she looked down while being handed identification. Unable to subdue the trainer with a baton and open hand strikes, she drew her firearm and was told she failed the exercise for trying to use her weapon. In a second try, Bartle said she was hit in the head "with great force, knocking her to her knees, causing her to nearly lose consciousness." She was then failed for asking that the training scenario be suspended.
A week later during a third attempt she was also hit multiple times in the head. The blows caused concussions each time, her lawsuit said.
An investigation by Burlington Police later determined that a number of officers from different departments suffered head and other injuries while participating in the hitchhiker drill.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said he's never heard of another police department using training scenarios that involved hitting an unsuspecting officer.
Gauthier said that after Burlington Police submitted their report on the training last spring, the trainers stopped hitting officers in the head.
"The strike is not a full force punch . it's more of a swat, it's an attention-getter," Gauthier said.
The council is also planning to have an outside agency review its training practices.