Crime and Justice

Trooper denies excessive force, though new documents show other troopers disagree

Vermont State Police Trooper Robert Zink has been charged with assault, accused of striking a handcuffed suspect. Vermont State Police photo

A Vermont State Police trooper has pleaded not guilty to assaulting a handcuffed man he was trying to take into custody.

However, newly released documents reveal that two other troopers who were at the scene told investigators they believed the force used was excessive.

During a video arraignment in Bennington County Superior criminal court on Monday, Robert Zink, 39, of Arlington pleaded not guilty to simple assault. He was released on his own recognizance to await trial. The maximum penalty for the charge is a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

An affidavit filed by Vermont State Police, explaining the charge against Zink, became public after the arraignment. The document provides more details of the case than had been released when the trooper was issued a citation last week.

Zink was trying to arrest Christopher Campbell of Shaftsbury, who had driven off Tinkham Road near his home on the afternoon of Feb. 23.

The charging documents describe a chaotic scene, as Campbell became combative with troopers who were trying to take him into custody for suspected drunken driving.

Trooper Jeremy Sullivan, the first officer on scene, called for backup as Campbell was reportedly resisting arrest. Eventually, three troopers, including Zink, were at the scene.

The investigation into Zink’s actions was conducted by state police Detective Sgt. Jacob Metayer of the Williston barracks. Metayer took the assignment to avoid a conflict, since Zink’s base in Shaftsbury is at the other end of the state from Williston.

In a five-page affidavit that became public Monday, Metayer wrote that he had reviewed body and vehicle camera footage from the troopers.

Sullivan requested backup at 3:33 p.m. Feb. 23, Metayer wrote, reporting that Campbell was in a bulldozer-type vehicle, trying to get his truck unstuck after it had gone off the road near his home. 

At one point, the affidavit stated, Sullivan can be heard on the radio, telling other troopers to “step it up,” and “this guy is being ridiculous.” 

Sullivan continued to order Campbell to comply without success. Sullivan eventually took out his Taser and aimed it at Campbell, according to the affidavit. 

Troopers David Pfindel and Zink then arrived. When Campbell continued to refuse orders to comply, Zink and Sullivan “took him to the ground and handcuffed him,” Metayer wrote.

Campbell yelled “in my own driveway” repeatedly and told the troopers to “turn on body cams,” the affidavit stated.

Sullivan replied, “They are on … like when you charged me, that was all on,” the affidavit stated. 

Sullivan and Zink then lifted Campbell to his feet and walked him down the driveway, with Sullivan on Campbell’s left and Zink to his right. Campbell spun to the right and all three ended up on the ground. Zink then tried to hold Campbell on the ground, and Campbell continued to resist, Metayer wrote. 

At one point, the affidavit stated, Sullivan can be heard saying, “Stop going for my Taser,” and Campbell can be heard replying, “Like I know where that (expletive) is.”

Zink eventually struck Campbell with a “closed-fist hammer strike to the leg or buttocks” three times before striking Campbell in the back of the head with a closed fist four times, as Sullivan pushed his hand and arm away, the affidavit stated.

“Zink then turns back and strikes Campbell’s leg two more times with a closed fist, yelling ‘Let go,’” according to the affidavit. “Campbell’s left leg can be seen momentarily behind Zink, then his leg lifts a little and Zink’s leg appears to move and disengage from Campbell’s leg.”

Zink then stood up, took hold of Campbell and began to drag him the length of the cruiser toward the open back door, the detective wrote. Because Campbell was bleeding from his head, the troopers decided against putting him in the cruiser and called an ambulance to the scene.

Zink got a first-aid kit, and Sullivan applied pressure to Campbell’s head. A few minutes after the bleeding subsided, they put him in the cruiser and took him to the Shaftsbury barracks, according to the affidavit.

Sullivan later told the detective he saw Zink punching Campbell in the head. 

“Sullivan felt that these punches were too much, and the last punch sounded like a bowling ball hitting the ground,” the affidavit stated. “He stated Campbell’s head began to bleed after the last punch and Sullivan pushed Zink off Campbell.” 

Pfindel, who was also at the scene, was asked what he thought about Zink’s strikes against Campbell.

“He thought the strikes to Campbell’s legs were reasonable, but he did not think the strikes to Campbell’s head were justified,” the affidavit stated.

Zink told the detective that Campbell had a “death grip” on his leg and wouldn’t let go, even after he struck him in the upper leg area. 

Zink said he was unsure at that time whether Campbell had gained control of Sullivan’s Taser, and he was too close to effectively use his own Taser or pepper spray on Campbell, according to the affidavit.

“Based on all of this, Zink decided to strike Campbell with a closed fist to the side and back of his head,” striking him three or four times, according to the affidavit. “Zink stated that his training has taught him that being on the ground with a subject is the most dangerous place to be, and he was trying to free himself.”

Campbell told the detective his memory of the incident was “spotty,” with his memory becoming clearer after he was later taken to the correctional facility.

“Campbell advised he does not remember this incident because he had consumed too much alcohol,” the affidavit stated. “He advised he had stressors in his life, which he did not articulate further, and he had gone days without eating food. He had been drinking alcohol at a friend’s house before returning home.”

Zink was on paid leave starting Feb. 24, a day after the incident, until last week when he was placed on unpaid leave.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, whose office is prosecuting the case, could not be reached Monday for comment.

On Monday, David Sleigh, Zink’s attorney, reiterated comments he made last week when the simple assault charge was filed.

“It’s concerning that you’d get charged with a crime when you’re wrestling with a combative, noncompliant suspect these days,” he said. “I guess that will play out as the case progresses.” 

Asked what he thought about the two other troopers’ view that Zink’s force was excessive, Sleigh replied, “I’ll have to talk to them about it and see why they say that.”  

Campbell faces a slew of charges himself, including drunken driving and assault on a police officer.

David Silver, an attorney for Campbell, said in a statement Monday that Campbell is a “hardworking, devoted and responsible family man who has great respect for the law and law enforcement” and is remorseful for his conduct that day.

“We hope that people understand that the assault charge against Trooper Zink was generated by his fellow troopers, not by Chris,” the statement said.

State police have said the investigation began after a trooper “raised concerns about the use of force.” 

Silver added Monday that he agreed with the investigative affidavit that Zink’s use of force against his client was not justified.

“There is a video that clearly shows what happened between trooper Zink and Chris,” Silver said in the statement. “And this video strongly supports the conclusion that Chris was unjustifiably assaulted by Trooper Zink.” 

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