By Alan Keays, VTDigger
The head of the state Department of Public Safety and an advisory panel say a trooper has been cleared of any wrongdoing in a traffic stop that a New York assemblyman said left a Brooklyn rabbi and his family feeling “terrorized.”
Rabbi Berl Fink, 57, said the trooper had his gun drawn and ordered him out of his 2004 Toyota Camry, before throwing him to the ground and handcuffing him as well as two other members of his family.
The family had been traveling through Vermont on the way to vacation in New Hampshire.
State police late Friday afternoon released a nearly 40-minute video from Trooper Justin Thompson’s dash cam that started as he attempted to pull over Rabbi Fink for allegedly speeding 83 mph in a 65-mph zone on Interstate 91 late on a rainy night last month in Fairlee.
A statement with the police release of the video stated that Thompson pursued Rabbi Fink’s vehicle at speeds ranging from 60 to 65 mph for about 4.5 miles before the vehicle pulled over. The video shows the pursuit lasting about 5 minutes.
Then, once the car was stopped, the statement read, Thompson stood alongside his cruiser with his firearm drawn, ordering the driver, later identified as Rabbi Fink, out of the vehicle.
“Driver, get your hands out the window right now,” Thompson yells, according to the video.
Once out of the vehicle, Thompson tells Rabbi Fink to walk back toward him. As he walks backward approaching the trooper’s cruiser, Thompson orders Rabbi Fink to get on the ground.
“Get on the ground, get on the ground,” Thompson shouts at Rabbi Fink, who walks to the side of the road. The trooper follows Rabbi Fink out of the full view of the camera as he continues to tell him to get on the ground and appears to use one hand to get him on the ground while holding his firearm in his other hand.
Rabbi Fink, about 30 minutes later, is issued a citation by Thompson on a charge of attempting to elude police.
Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson and the seven-member State Police Advisory Commission said in a joint statement issued late Friday that they had completed their review of the incident.
The commission and the advisory panel, the statement read, determined that Trooper Thompson “acted in accordance with his training and Vermont State Police policy and procedure when he made the decision to conduct a high-risk motor vehicle stop.”
The statement added, “Given the fact that it was dark outside when the stop was conducted, Trooper Thompson could not reasonably see or identify any personal characteristics of the occupants inside the vehicle at the time he made the decision to conduct a high-risk motor vehicle stop. There is no evidence from the investigation to suggest his actions were based on any type of bias or profiling.”
According to the statement, “At no time was Trooper Thompson rude or unprofessional in his conduct with the driver or occupants.”
The rabbi’s family as well as New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, contacted early Friday evening, said they couldn’t comment on the matter until Monday because they were observing Yom Kippur.
The assemblyman, who represents Brooklyn, had previously questioned in a letter to Gov. Phil Scott about the incident whether anti-Semitism played a role in the actions of the trooper toward the family, who are Hasidic Jews.
“My constituents’ dress made it clear that they were Hasidic Jews, a sight that may be uncommon in Vermont but one that is hardly a crime,” Hikind wrote. “While it would be difficult to mistake the Fink family as people who might pose a danger to police officers, they were subjected to having guns pointed at them, being handcuffed, terrorized and humiliated. This entire incident has left the Fink family traumatized and fearful of travel.”
The family has also said they are exploring legal actions.
Hikind said Friday he wanted thank the many Vermonters who have reached out to him and the Fink family following reports of the stop offering their support.
According to the joint statement issued Friday by the public safety commission and advisory panel, at around midnight on Aug. 8 Trooper Thompson was driving north on Interstate 91 in Thetford, when a vehicle approached him from behind traveling at a “high rate” of speed.
The trooper’s rear-facing radar clocked the vehicle at 83 mph in the 65-mph zone and Thompson moved to the right, turned on his blue lights and pulled into breakdown until the vehicle passed him.
Once that vehicle passed, the statement read, Thompson, with his blue lights on, tried to pull the car over for speeding. The vehicle didn’t stop, according to the statement, and Thompson turned on his siren and called dispatch “initiating a pursuit.”
The pursuit last 4.5 miles at speeds between 60 and 65 mph, the statement read,
“After the vehicle pulled to the side of the interstate, Thompson conducted a high-risk motor vehicle stop based on his observations and training,” according to the statement. “The decision to conduct a high-risk stop is based on numerous factors that are evaluated in real time by an officer during an incident.”
Those factors in this instance, the statement read, included the “rural area” of the stop at 12:09 a.m., the lack of immediate back-up in the area, the vehicle’s failure to pull over for more than 4 miles, and officer safety.
“When conducting a high-risk motor vehicle stop, law enforcement officers are trained to order the operator and occupants out of the vehicle to maintain control (of) the situation and ensure the safety of all individuals present, as well as assess potential threats,” the statement read. “The training directs law enforcement officers to issue verbal commands from a position of cover at their police cruiser and have their firearm drawn during the removal process.”
Thompson, with his firearm drawn issued “verbal commands” and first ordered the driver, Rabbi Fink, to get out of the car.
“While he was in the process of attempting to assess and control the actions of the operator, a male passenger, later identified as Eli Fink of Brooklyn, N.Y., exited the vehicle on his own from the rear driver’s side seat,” the statement read.
“Not knowing the intentions of the occupant, Trooper Thompson ordered the occupant back into the vehicle. Trooper Thompson was still alone at this time as backup had not yet arrived.”
At one point during the traffic stop, according to the video, a dispatcher notifies the trooper that one of the “occupants” of the vehicle had called 911. A family member said in a later interview with VTDigger that Rabbi Fink’s wife, Sarah, who was in the front passenger seat, had called 911 during the traffic stop to report a “terror attack.”
Another trooper as well as an officer from another police agency shortly after arrived at the scene, and Rabbi Fink’s 19-year-old son, Eli, and then his wife, Sarah, were ordered out of the vehicle and handcuffed, the video shows. The couple’s 16-year-old daughter was also ordered out of the vehicle. She was not handcuffed.
The video also shows a trooper frisking Rabbi Fink for weapons and none were found. Thompson had initially told Rabbi Fink he was going to take him to a state police barracks for processing his arrest.
However, a call reporting a domestic assault came in that required an “immediate” response so the trooper decided to issue Rabbi Fink a citation instead, the statement released Friday read.
In issuing the citation, the trooper told Rabbi Fink he needs to appear in Orange County Superior Court on Sept. 20 to answer the charge. However, Rabbi Fink told the officer that date falls during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and asked for a different date.
Thompson told Rabbi Fink he would need to call the court to change the date, according to the video. The date for Rabbi Fink’s arraignment has since been set for Oct. 18.
Yidi Fink, Rabbi Fink’s son who wasn’t in the vehicle at time of the stop, said in an interview with VTDigger last month about the incident that his father doesn’t speed. In fact, the son said the family teases his father over how slow he drives.
The statement released Friday stated Rabbi Fink was clocked on Trooper Thompson’s radar traveling 83 mph in a 65-mph zone.
In the video, Rabbi Fink told the trooper that he saw his cruiser in the breakdown so he drove into the passing lane, which is the law in New York state. He also said he didn’t realize that the trooper was trying to pull him over, even though he saw the cruiser’s blue lights flashing behind him.
“We’re very sorry,” Rabbi Fink said at one point, just before the trooper read him the Miranda warning.
Then, after telling him his rights, the trooper asked Rabbi Fink if was willing to talk about incident.
“I have nothing to hide,” Rabbi Fink replied.
“I went to stop for you for speeding and you didn’t stop,” the trooper told him. “That’s why we’re here.”
“The truth of the matter is,” Rabbi Fink replied, “we did not realize we were speeding at all.”
He then said that once he realized the trooper was trying to stop him, he tried to find a safe place to stop.
“You understand, though, that when the lights come on and the siren comes on that’s your signal to stop,” the trooper said.
Again, Rabbi Fink said he was looking for a safe place pull over.
“You also understand though,” the trooper responded, “that you’re not the one who decides that, I do when I put the lights on.”
Moments later, Rabbi Fink was allowed to go back to vehicle and head to his vacation in New Hampshire.
“Sorry we had to meet like to this,” the trooper told him as the traffic stop ended, advising Rabbi Fink that when he sees flashing blue in the future to pull over.
The trooper added, “Be careful getting to where you’re going.”