Crime and Justice

Hartford restarts police chief search after details emerge about one finalist’s past

Hartford Town Hall. Supplied photo

Less than a week after Hartford announced two finalists for its long-vacant police chief position, the search is back to square one.

In an email Thursday morning, town manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis told VTDigger that Hartford’s “preferred candidate” informed town officials on Wednesday that he had accepted another position. She declined to provide the candidate’s name.

Yarlott-Davis’ email came a day after VTDigger asked whether the town’s hiring committee was aware that one of the finalists, Patrick Torneo, had been among three Connecticut state police troopers named as defendants in a federal civil rights complaint in 2016.

The lawsuit was filed by a protester represented by the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU. Michael Picard was searched, detained, had his camera confiscated and was charged with what he and the ACLU alleged were fabricated crimes in 2015. In 2020, the state settled with Picard for $50,000. 

Torneo, a member of the Connecticut State Police commissioner’s staff, was in the running for Hartford police chief alongside John Poleway, who retired from the police chief position in Larchmont, New York, the Valley News reported last week.

On Wednesday, Yarlott-Davis, who is leading the search, declined to comment to VTDigger about whether she was aware of Torneo’s encounter with the protester and the resulting settlement.

“The hiring process for departmental leadership roles includes an extensive background check that will be forthcoming on the lead candidate,” she said in an email, adding that the search had been narrowed from four semi-finalists to two finalists.

On Wednesday night, Torneo told VTDigger by email that the 2015 incident would not affect his ability to lead the department, and that he had served Connecticut “honestly” and “faithfully.” 

“After an extensive internal affairs investigation conducted by the Connecticut State Police, I was exonerated from any wrongdoing,” he said. “The State did eventually settle with the plaintiff, however, I was not named as a defendant as part of that settlement.”

By Thursday morning, Yarlott-Davis had apparently already concluded that the sole remaining candidate was not suitable for the job, though she did not say who that candidate was. She also did not indicate whether Torneo’s encounter with the protester affected her decision.

Yarlott-Davis said the town would work with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to reset the search. “I’ll be discussing next steps with IACP later this week but we’re back to square one on this search,” she said. 

The International Association of Chiefs of Police is a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that provides executive search services to departments and municipalities. It is assisting an advisory search group composed of Hartford town staff and citizens. Yarlott-Davis told the Selectboard in February that the hiring decisions are ultimately hers to make. 

At a selectboard meeting Tuesday night, Yarlott-Davis reported that the town’s top two candidates had each come in for a full day of interviews, and that background checks were being performed. Such background checks “take time,” she told the Selectboard. “They look at your whole life.”

Video of Torneo’s encounter, published by the ACLU, and details of the subsequent settlement are readily available with a Google search. 

The recording shows Torneo and fellow Connecticut troopers John Barone and John Jacobi discussing how to file charges against a protester after Barone had seized the protester’s legal pistol and video camera.

“(The protester) was filming the police during a public protest. Police confiscated his camera,” the ACLU wrote in a description of the video posted to YouTube. “It kept rolling while they decided how to retaliate.” 

The video showed the troopers discussing how best to reprimand Picard, even calling a police officer from Hartford, Connecticut, to see if that officer had any “grudges” against him.

The charges against Picard were later dropped and the civil lawsuit filed. As part of a settlement in 2020, the state of Connecticut agreed to pay $50,000 to Picard in exchange for the suit’s dismissal and releasing the officers from liability. Torneo was not named as a defendant in the final settlement. 

Hartford has been without a top cop for more than a year. The town’s last police chief, Phil Kasten, submitted his resignation in January 2021. His successor as interim chief, Brad Vail, left Hartford in February 2022 to lead Barre’s police department.

VTDigger later revealed the existence of a video showing Vail using misogynistic slurs while in the Hartford Police Department around 2014 or 2015. Barre City Manager Steve Mackenzie said Vail had previously disclosed the existence of the video, but that Mackenzie chose not to review it or send it to the hiring committee. After the video was published, Mackenzie and the Barre City Council said they stood by Vail as police chief.

While the search process for a permanent chief continues in Hartford, Lt. Constance Kelley has served in the interim. 

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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