Local police on alert after mayhem at Capitol
They’re protected by the First Amendment and they can believe whatever they want, no matter how repugnant it is. But as soon as it starts to move into planning and action, that’s different.
— Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley
VERMONT — In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement by Middlebury College that it would revoke Rudy Giuliani’s 2005 honorary degree, the Middlebury Police Department and the college public safety officials are on alert and “keeping the lines of communication open” in case there is a backlash against the campus community, said MPD Chief Tom Hanley Tuesday afternoon.
Middlebury revoked Giuliani’s degree for his role in inciting the violence that occurred last Wednesday, Jan. 6, when supporters of President Trump and right-wing extremists who refuse to accept that Trump lost the 2020 election stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from counting Electoral Votes. The Justice Department is investigating hundreds of people in connection with the riots and suggests that some could face charges of sedition and conspiracy.
Much of the country was already on heightened alert after the FBI on Monday warned about possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols and the U.S. Capitol, starting this weekend.
At least one flyer circulating in far-right, pro-Trump social media circles promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill & all state capitols,” but federal and state law enforcement officials emphasized on Monday that the intelligence environment is rapidly evolving, and that while these threats are possible they are not necessarily imminent.
The Vermont Department of Public Safety (DPS) held a press briefing on Monday to discuss the situation in Montpelier.
“At this stage there is not a specific set of threats, or threat, that has emerged specific to Vermont, but I would caution that it is early,” said Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling. “We still have a number of days to go. That’s not to indicate that we’re predicting anything’s going to emerge — it’s just early in the process with several days to go before potential planned events on a national scale on both the 17th and the 20th.”
The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled for Jan. 20.
For “obvious reasons,” Schirling declined to elaborate on what threat intelligence has been received and how Vermont’s law enforcement agencies planned to respond to it.
Schirling acknowledged there were some concerns about members of state and local law enforcement supporting armed protestors, especially after State Trooper Lucas Hall on Jan. 6 posted encouraging messages to the D.C. rioters on his personal Facebook page. But the commissioner said he was not aware of any other investigations of Vermont law enforcement officers in connection to the events at the U.S. Capitol last week.
Trooper Hall was suspended without pay on Jan. 7, pending an internal investigation. He resigned on Tuesday.
Many Vermont officials have denounced the pro-Trump rioters.
Gov. Phil Scott condemned their actions and those of the president.
“Make no mistake, the President of the United States is responsible for this event,” Scott said in a Jan. 6 statement, which he concluded by calling on Trump to resign “or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by Congress.”
Two days later, the Vermont General Assembly passed a joint resolution that concluded with the same message.
On Tuesday, when asked about upcoming demonstrations, Scott told Vermonters that he was fine with people protesting, but, he cautioned, “don’t be played. Don’t let these organizations to use you as pawns.”
Aware that such statements could provoke far-right extremists, Montpelier police issued a statement on Saturday, assuring local residents that the department was working with the Capitol Police, as well as state and federal law enforcement, to ensure the safety of the capitol complex and the city.
Law enforcement agencies have also weighed in on the events of last week.
A day after the riots, the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement condemning the violence, which it said “further demonstrates the dangers of extreme ideology.”
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans, Sheriff Peter Newton and High Bailiff Dave Silberman demanded that “all those responsible for this attempted coup be held accountable under the law.”
Hanley mentioned the threat intelligence in his daily emergency management bulletin on Monday.
“There is currently heightened concern over the upcoming inauguration and other events that may be targeted for disruption,” he wrote. “This affects everyone.”
The MPD chief encouraged anyone with information about violent activities to contact the Vermont Department of Public Safety at vtips.us, 1-844-848-8477 or text keyword VTIPS to 274637 (CRIMES).
In an interview with the Independent on Friday, Jan. 8 — before the FBI’s announcement — Hanley outlined the Middlebury Police Department’s role in the larger law enforcement network that’s tasked with monitoring and responding to potential domestic threats.
Much of the information that comes down to local police departments comes from the Vermont Intelligence Center (VIC), he said, which has as a mission to “collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence information in an effort to identify, investigate, and prevent criminal activity and protect the citizens and critical infrastructures vital to our society,” according to the VIC website.
VIC is itself part of a larger network that includes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI Joint Terrorism Taskforce, Customs and Border Protection, the New England State Police Information Network and various Canadian law enforcement agencies.
The MPD also gets intelligence bulletins from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which, among other things, monitors hate groups and other extremists around the country and exposes their activities to the public, the media and law enforcement.
In 2019 the SPLC tracked two hate groups in Vermont, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and the white nationalist Patriot Front. They also tracked dozens of groups in surrounding states.
“We know there are people in town who are members of these groups,” Hanley said. “Burlington is apparently one of the most active recruiting grounds in New England for the Patriot Front, which are basically the KKK under another name.”
Such groups, he said, are “somewhat reactionary to things like BLM (the Black Lives Matter movement), which they use a recruiting tool.”
The Patriot Front has been more active in Vermont during the pandemic, he said, and they’ve put up recruiting posters in and around Middlebury.
“They don’t stay up very long, though, because people tear them down and bring them to us.”
The entire police department has had training on extremist groups and how they become radicalized, Hanley said.
He himself monitors groups like the Patriot Front, Proud Boys and QAnon online as time allows.
“But I’m not spending a lot of time in chat rooms or anything. I’m not going that deep. We’re not an intelligence agency.”
Hanley does not have a problem with demonstrations or people expressing their views, he said.
“They’re protected by the First Amendment and they can believe whatever they want, no matter how repugnant it is. But as soon as it starts to move into planning and action, that’s different.”
Hanley expressed no sympathy for former Trooper Lucas Hall, who he said was “participating in the insurrection by extension.”
“Guys like that completely undermine law enforcement,” he said. “We have problems enough with ‘defund the police’ and everything else. An act like this transcends to all of us.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]
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