Thursday February 21, 2013

A former Vermont State Trooper was sentenced to six to 12 months, all suspended, on Tuesday for assaulting two men he accused of stealing his canoe one sunny day in 2012 on Lake Raponda in Wilmington.

Eric Howley pleaded no contest, which means he didn’t admit guilt, but agreed that the state probably had enough evidence to convict him of simple assault.

Howley, a seven-year veteran of the state police, resigned after he was charged with two counts of simple assault.

Howley’s psychologist took the stand on Tuesday, and said his client was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of serving as a military policeman in Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay. He also claimed Howley’s PTSD was exacerbated by an incident in Texas, which he didn’t explain, and by a search for a woman who drowned during Tropical Storm Irene.

The court was told that a staff psychiatrist at the White River Junction VA Medical Center agreed with the diagnosis.

The psychologist said the former trooper told him he went to the lake with a plan to resolve the situation but couldn’t remember what happened after he confronted the two men over the stolen canoe.

This wasn’t the first time Howley had been implicated in the use of unnecessary force.

In 2005, he, another trooper and two other officers allegedly assaulted a member of a wedding party in Arlington, who claimed he was beat with flashlights and stunned with a Taser while in handcuffs. The man suffered a concussion, broken bones in his face and five broken teeth.

Though none of the officers were charged in that case, the state settled with the victim for $135,000. Instead of being punished for his actions, Howley was promoted twice before the incident in Wilmington.

While the criminal charges against Howley have now been resolved, this isn’t the end of legal troubles for him. The attorney who represented the victim in the 2005 beating has said as soon as the criminal charges were resolved, he would be pushing ahead with a civil suit on behalf of the two victims of the Lake Raponda assault.

The Reformer understands the serious nature of PTSD and how it affects those in uniform -- the military, law enforcement and emergency responders. At the same time, those who believe they have been traumatized by what they have experienced in the line of duty have a responsibility to get help. While we have sympathy for the plight of those suffering from PTSD, we also believe it’s not an excuse for committing a crime, especially when you are a public servant such as a police officer.

We expect those tasked with upholding the law to hew to the law, impeccably. To do otherwise brings disfavor down upon those who are diligent and responsible in the administration of their duties and makes their jobs harder.

As the presiding judge noted, Howley’s behavior "detracts clearly from the credibility of the police. I don’t think there’s any question, it affects every police officer in the state."

The judge also noted if a person had assaulted a police officer as Howley had assaulted his two victims, that person would be facing jail time and would not have gotten off with a suspended sentence.

Even though Howley did not express remorse (which probably has something to do with the possibility of a civil suit against him), at the end of the hearing he said he was "looking forward to moving on and moving forward."

We hope he gets the help he needs and is able to move on with his life.

And we as a nation owe it to our uniformed service personnel who are suffering from PTSD to make sure that help is available when they come looking for it, no excuses.