Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Rutland City Police Chief James Baker explains a police department report about the attempted murder of a Rutland City police officer as he speaks at a Rutland City Police Commission meeting Monday night.
RUTLAND — City Police Chief James Baker said Monday he wasn’t assessing blame in an alleged attempt on the life of one of his officers last month.
But the chief did find fault with mistakes that allowed Jennifer Berube to smuggle a knife into the department, and Baker said officers missed clues prior to the attack against officer Damon Nguyen that Baker said were obvious in surveillance camera video and recordings.
“I don’t believe any policies or rules or regulations were violated,” the chief said Monday night while explaining to the Rutland Police Commission the result of a more than two-week-long internal review of the incident. “I’m recommending policies and trainings to help us stay on top of our game at all times.”
“The fact of the matter is we need to pay better attention and do a better job,” he added.
The injuries from the incident which occurred in the department’s booking area on the night of Dec. 27 weren’t severe — Nguyen received a 2-inch cut to the right side of his throat while Berube was treated at the hospital for cuts to her hand inflicted during a brief struggle with the officer.
But the chief said both he and county prosecutors — who brought a charge of attempted murder in the second degree against Berube — were treating the incident and the mistakes that allowed it to happen very seriously.
He didn’t identify the officer or officers involved in the search.
Baker said he and Sgt. James Tarbell, who conducted the internal review, believe that Berube smuggled the knife into department inside the loose folds of her clothing, which the chief described as “baggy.”
In his report, Tarbell said the search and personal inventory of items found on Berube lasted “less than a minute.”
But in his address to the commission, Baker said the officer who conducted the search did so appropriately.
“While it’s not acceptable that something got through, it’s not unusual to miss evidence in a search,” he said. “In baggy or layered clothing it’s very conceivable that an officer would not pick up on the small folding knife in a frisk or inventory process.”
The knife wasn’t the only piece of contraband to escape notice, he said. A syringe needle — Berube told police she was a heroin user — and hair clip, which Baker said both had the potential to be used as weapons were found on Berube after the attack.
The chief said mistakes during the booking of Berube and her husband, John MacLean III, didn’t end with the failure to find the knife.
After the pair were arrested for allegedly trying to fraudulently use a credit card at several city businesses, they were brought to the department and placed in a holding cell.
But when husband and wife were overheard talking to one another, they were separated — MacLean remained in the cell while Berube was moved to a nearby interview room where a door was propped open and Nguyen was assigned to watch over her while he worked on paperwork.
In his report, Tarbell wrote that separating the pair and placing Berube unrestrained in the interview room was a mistake.
“The fact that arrestees were allowed to be unhandcuffed or unrestrained in any way not in a locked cell negates the security of the facility and places both officers and arrestees in potential dangerous situations,” he wrote.
In addition, Tarbell and Baker said audio from the surveillance camera gives a number of hints that an attack was about to occur — including shouts across the cell block from Berube who told MacLean that she had the “Leatherman” — the type of knife used in the attack.
After listening to the tapes himself, Baker said he believes that MacLean and Berube had prearranged a “suicide pact” that they would carry out if they were caught.
After the attack against Nguyen, MacLean was found with a shoelaces knotted into a noose inside his cell, the chief said, and he could be heard on the recording making statements such as “I love you. The last time I say it, I love you...I just wanted to say goodbye.”
Berube is heard saying back to him “Don’t do it. Don’t leave me.”
“She tried to prevent him from killing himself by attacking officer Nguyen and escaping with her husband,” Baker said. “Sometimes it happens that suspects can be difficult and officers tune them out. But as a result of tuning them out, the officers in this case lost valuable information.”
Baker said that to correct the problems found during the review, the department will host trainings to focus on nonverbal pre-attack indicators, proper searching procedures and enhanced listening skills.
Policy reviews in the department will focus on the secure movement of prisoners in the department, including when someone is allowed to move unrestrained. There will also be a review of policy on proper inventory searching of prisoners, the chief said.
While much of the discussion Monday focused on what went wrong, Baker and Police Commission member Thomas Calcagni also talked about elements of the incident that they said reflected positively on the officers involved.
“I’m incredibly proud of the officers in this case,” Baker said. “A lot of the time in these kinds of situations people lose their cool and bad things happen but that didn’t happen in this case ... the two suspects were treated with dignity and respect and it’s well documented that they did.”
Calcagni, who visited the department the night of the attack, said he was also impressed with Nguyen, who returned to work as soon as he was released from the hospital.
“It didn’t appear like he let anything ruffle his feathers,” he said.
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