The Vermont Attorney General and Chittenden County State's Attorney are not bringing charges against the Burlington Police Department officer who shot and killed Ralph "Phil" Grennon two months ago. Mr. Grennon, a long-time Burlingtonian with a well-known history of mental illness, was shot after refusing to interact with police or come out of his apartment after making verbal threats against neighbors. Instead, he holed up in his bathtub for five hours while the police repeatedly tried to communicate with him and made several incursions into his apartment. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, the Chittenden County State's Attorney called the shooting "justified," and the Attorney General's office agreed.
As the ACLU of Vermont noted shortly after Grennon’s killing, this outcome was to be expected. By applying the legal standard of reasonableness only to the imminent moment of a physical threat to officers, investigations like this one rarely, if ever, find a shooting by an officer to be unjustified.
While the investigation has concluded, Vermonters across the state must continue to ask themselves, Did Mr. Grennon need to die? Could his death have been prevented? What can be done to prevent the next potential officer-involved shooting?
A good place to start would be the creation of a statewide use-of-force policy. Key elements would be de-escalation, dignity for all, safety for all, prevention, proportionality, and equity.
Departments across the country (Seattle, for instance) are updating their use-of-force policies, trainings, and evaluation procedures to prevent death before and during the moment of imminent danger, following Police Executive Research Forum recommendations to minimize force through de-escalation and new policy, training, and evaluation models.
Vermont’s legislature has required the development of statewide policies on Taser use, fair and impartial policing, eyewitness identification, and custodial recordings. Unfortunately, Vermont has not yet taken the necessary legislative steps to address the use-of-force standards taught at its sole police academy, approved by the state Attorney General’s Office, and implemented by law enforcement agencies across the state.
A second step would be greater police professionalism. The ACLU of Vermont has repeatedly called for licensure requirements for all Vermont law enforcement officers. In other professions, a death resulting from a professional’s actions would be reviewed by an independent licensing agency that regularly examines the actions of those practicing within the profession. In Vermont, law enforcement officers are only required to be certified by the police academy, and are investigated by whom they work with most closely, their state’s attorneys. That’s not true professionalism.
Third, solutions at the state and local level can include more effective and expert community partnerships to assist people in crisis. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Core Elements in Responding to Mental Health Crises recommended crisis services be provided by professionals, including police, with the appropriate level of training and demonstrated competence. The guidance specifically highlighted police departments that have established links with mental health professionals to provide timely on-site assistance. In addition, over 2,700 police departments across the country have instituted the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model that provides 40 hours of training to police to prevent unnecessary uses of force against people in mental health crisis. According to the CIT website, the Bellows Falls Police Department has the only established CIT program in Vermont.
And, fourth, independent oversight through external investigatory bodies such as special prosecutors or citizen review boards can be created to conduct investigations, examine uses of force and alleged misconduct, and make policy recommendations. These bodies provide a necessary check on police power and ensure transparency and accountability. For more information on setting up independent oversight in your community, see the ACLU’s Citizen Action Manual.
By demanding better policies, training, supervision, and evaluation for all law enforcement officers, Vermonters can prevent further deaths. Or, we can do nothing and allow the cycle to repeat itself once again. The choice is clear.
-- Jay Diaz, Staff Attorney/Public Advocate