That the Vermont State Police failed to adequately respond in a search for 19-year-old Levi Duclos, who was reported to state police as an overdue hiker in Ripton on Jan. 9, has been acknowledged by most, outraged first responders and rescue volunteers across the state, distressed friends and local residents, and shaken the public’s confidence in the state police force.
It is clear to almost everyone that this is a tragedy that might have been prevented had a better system been in place.
It is encouraging, therefore, that the Legislature has embraced the issue, vowed to understand what went wrong, and has pledged to work hard until they adopt a system that responds immediately to the crisis at hand. It is also encouraging that some state police have admitted to being open to finding a better way to handle future calls.
What is disturbing, however, is the apparent reasoning behind the state troopers’ dismal response to a call for help. It borders on a failure to understand the severity of the circumstances the Duclos family was facing that night, a failure to appreciate the number of readily available rescue personnel willing to respond at a moment’s notice, and a reluctance to involve others in what may have been a criminal investigation.
In parsing comments of those interviewed in the three stories run in the Addison Independent over the past 10 days, the most telling is from Lt. Robert Cushing, team leader of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit, when he was asked what the routine course of action was when called to help in a search: “Generally, our response is at first light the next morning, but that’s based off the information on the missing person,” he said, explaining that state police don’t usually conduct a physical search at night “because, ultimately, it could be a criminal investigation. A good example of that is Brooke Bennett, who was reported as a missing person and it turned into a major criminal case. And also there’s risk factors for searchers.”
The comment is telling because it belies an all too common priority of police work at the community level: that their primary focus is criminal prosecution, not public service.
That is, of course, an arguable point. Prosecuting criminals is, no doubt, a public service. But when prosecution becomes the overriding focus of the police force and serving the public is a secondary consequence of that action, you get skewed outcomes — including policies that delay search and rescue efforts on cold winter nights when a young man’s life lies in the balance. The result, in this case, is the tragic consequence of misplaced priorities.
We hope that when state legislators and state police, as well as others in the public safety community, meet to discuss what went wrong and how Vermont can craft a better process, this underlying culture is also reviewed for its pros and cons in the many different circumstances state police find themselves. It is important to understand that the mindset of those who see their role as always fighting the enemy, whose first instinct is to catch the criminal and prosecute, may not be those best suited for serving the public interest in ways that most of us might expect.