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Vermont Reviews Use of Force

  • Vermont State Police Col. Matthew Birmingham discusses the fatal shooting of Benjamin Gregware in Bolton, Vt., during a news conference on Feb. 12, 2018. Gregware was shot by a Vermont state trooper and a Richmond, Vt., police officer after a traffic stop on Interstate 89. Second from right is Maj. Ingrid Jonas, commander of the Support Services Division. (Burlington Free Press - Glenn Russell)

  • Police surround a man felled by shots while walking with a gun on the grounds of Montpelier High School, Tuesday Jan. 18, 2018, in Montpelier, Vt. Police said the man, who tried to rob the Vermont State Employees Credit Union across the street from the school, was shot and killed by police on the school grounds. (WCAX-TV via AP)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2018

White River Junction — Vermont State Police are considering the use of plastic bullets and beanbag projectiles after a review of its use-of-force policy by a national expert recommended the agency have additional less-lethal tools available in responding to some high-risk incidents.

The review came after at least three fatal shootings involving State Police troopers between September and February.

State Police review every incident where force is used, but the deadly shootings put added emphasis on a thorough evaluation of current practices, said Vermont State Police Maj. Ingrid Jonas, commander of the Support Services Division.

The recent shootings included a man in a domestic assault standoff in Poultney, Vt., a bank robbery suspect who fled onto the grounds of Montpelier High School and a distraught motorist on Interstate 89 in Bolton, Vt. Two of the men were armed with pellet guns, while the third had a handgun.

“We have an obligation to really look closely and thoroughly, and ask, ‘Can we do anything better?’ ” Jonas said this week. “We want to make sure we are utilizing every possible option to de-escalate before force is necessary, and that we have tools at the ready to be used to help mitigate the situation.”

Some less-lethal options being considered are the use of plastic ammunition, beanbag projectiles and “percussion munitions,” which also are known as “flashbangs” and are used to “temporarily disorient a person’s senses,” Jonas said.

Vermont State Police are consulting with use-of-force expert Steve Ijames, a former police chief in southern Missouri who has done similar work for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to research tactics and the necessary training.

Tactical units first would be outfitted with the new tools, with the goal of extending that to all troopers, according to an April news release announcing recommendations for updates to the use-of-force policy.

“We have always employed less-lethal techniques. (They are) not a new concept. It really is a question of seeing if we can improve,” Jonas said.

Similarly, Vermont State Police eventually hope to outfit all of its troopers with body cameras, the release states. Right now, all field force troopers have cruiser cameras.

“We learned so much from what we do have for video technology ... They prove helpful,” Jonas said. “Also, it is something the public has wanted. ... It is what is expected of us and it is what we want to provide.”

Most of the initiatives come with cost factors that could slow implementation, Jonas said. Therefore, a timeline hasn’t been set for when state police might obtain devices that can shoot beanbag rounds, for example, or when all troopers could be wearing body cameras.

In addition to cost, agency officials may have to work with legislators to draft a law that would govern the use of body cameras, for example.

Concrete and clear guidelines are key, said James Diaz, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

“Body cameras can be good for accountability, as well as for law enforcement and prosecutors to help prove their case. But the ACLU is somewhat ambivalent on body cameras,” Diaz said. “We are only for body cameras when the use of them comes with strong policies that ensure accountability will take place.”

Some of the ACLU’s concerns include protecting privacy rights and tightening policies that sometimes allow officers not to use their cameras when the intent is to have them on. In addition, current use hasn’t afforded the public a uniform right to view the footage, he said.

“We think it can be an important tool if the right policies are put in place,” Diaz said.

Attorney Robin Curtiss, of Orford, applauded Vermont State Police’s decision to look into body cameras. Curtiss represented then-Hartford resident Wayne Burwell, who in September settled a civil lawsuit that alleged Hartford officers used unreasonable force against him inside his own home.

“I think it is tremendous. I have often said that I wish the officers had worn body cameras in the Burwell case,” Curtiss said. There were audio recordings from the incident that were entered into evidence.

Curtiss also praised the agency for exploring additional less-lethal tactics.

If new devices are used in policing, such as a weapon that shoots beanbags, Diaz, with the ACLU, said he hopes they come with good data collection that show when they are used. When stun guns were introduced, Diaz said, officers were more likely to use force because they had a less-lethal option.

“If these are replacing firearms, that can be a good thing, but if they are something that will be used more often, that is not what we want,” he said.

Efforts to use less-lethal tools also doesn’t mean that they can’t prove deadly. Macadam Mason, a Thetford man who was unarmed inside his home in 2012, was killed by a stun gun shot by a Vermont State Police trooper.

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said his department has two “Less-Lethal Launchers” that shoot foam projectiles. An updated policy that governs their use went into effect in October 2017.

“Officers should consider deployment of the (launcher) in high-risk encounters where suspect control is necessary and a minimal potential for death or serious injury is the desired result,” the detailed policy states.

The launchers are kept in the supervisory vehicles, with the goal of having one available on each patrol shift. All Hartford officers are trained on how to use them, Kasten said.

Since Kasten took over the Hartford Police Department in 2015, the launcher has been deployed twice, he said.

Col. Matthew Birmingham, the director of the Vermont State Police, called for the review of the use-of-force policy, something Kasten said is commendable.

“We’ve been pleased with the professionalism and responsiveness of the Vermont State Police during our interactions. ... We call on them often,” Kasten said.

More often than not, police officers don’t use force in their day-to-day work, Jonas said. And troopers employ several tools daily that are not lethal, such as an officer’s communication, his or her mere presence and tone.

Oftentimes, those tactics are effective and don’t warrant any type of force in a given situation, Jonas said.

“You just never hear about these instances,” she said. “Most police officers rarely need to draw a weapon on duty, let alone fire it. The majority of us thankfully make it through an entire career without deploying lethal force.”

However, one trooper, Chris Brown, fired his weapon in all three recent incidents: Poultney, Vt., Montpelier and Bolton, Vt., which took place over the past few months and, in part, led to the policy reviews. He currently is on administrative duty status.

Every situation has different dynamics, and that is why police officers are trained in a use-of-force model that consists of several stages.

“All officers may only employ an objectively reasonable level of force to accomplish a legal purpose,” Jonas said. “In assessing the need to use force, the paramount consideration always should be the safety of the public and the police officer.”

In addition to reviewing its use-of-force policy, Vermont State Police has zeroed in on policies that govern the process an officer follows after he or she is involved in a traumatic situation, or “critical incident.”

A “critical incident” could be any type of event that has “the potential to create significant human distress and can overwhelm one’s usual coping mechanisms,” according to an April 5 report from a committee comprised of members of the state police that reviewed current policies and made changes. The report still is in a draft stage, but any troopers involved in critical incidents going forward will operate under the new standards outlined in the report, regardless of when it is formally finalized, Jonas said.

Critical incidents include police shootings. Another example is the car crash on Interstate 89 in Williston, Vt., in October 2016 that killed five teenagers, Jonas said.

Before the Critical Incident Administrative Review Committee issued its draft report, a trooper involved in a critical incident was placed on paid leave for a minimum of three days. Upon further review, the committee extended that to five days. When a trooper returns to duty, he or she will then remain on administrative duty status, instead of returning to the road, until the Attorney General’s Office or relevant State’s Attorney’s Office completes a review of the incident.

That change won’t alter the time period for when an officer is interviewed after an incident, Jonas said.

By comparison, New Hampshire State Police place a trooper on paid leave for at least seven days following a critical incident.

During the policy review, committee members said all officers respond to critical incidents differently, and that many can’t decompress until that interview is over, which can take several days.

“The amount of leave time required should be determined by the individual member and gauged by his or her reaction to a critical incident,” Vermont State Police clinician Lori Gurney said in the report.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

Correction

In discussing use-of-force standards for Vermont State Police, Maj. Ingrid Jonas said, “All officers may only employ an objectively reasonable level of force to accomplish a legal purpose.”  An earlier version of this story inaccurately quoted her regarding the “legal purpose.”