It is hard to imagine a civil society where government officials shoot their own citizens dead. It is harder still to imagine a civil society where government officials don't want to shoot their citizens dead, nevertheless do, yet don't have a plan to stop doing so.

police badge serve and protect-croppedSince 49-year-old Wayne Brunette was shot dead last week outside his home by Burlington police, numerous questions have been raised in the media and from the public about why the tragedy happened. His mother had called police to help her distraught son; how did he end up dead?

There will be an investigation. If past experience is any indication, the shooting will be deemed justified. This will be the police department’s own “internal” investigation, routinely done after every use-of-force by an officer and routinely reaching the same conclusion.

As with any internal investigation in any organization, a police department’s review is heavily colored by an impulse to deflect liability from itself and its employees. Most Vermont police departments are comparatively small. This makes it doubly difficult for employees to objectively review the work of friends and colleagues.

Following on the “internal,” there may be a second investigation, done by the state Attorney General’s Office. If so, it, too, will likely reach the same conclusion, as it has in many other cases where police officers have shot, sometimes killed, a Vermonter they were called to help. The AG will say the shooting was justified.

The attorney general has no freestanding authority to police the police.  The Attorney General’s Office reviews police killings of Vermonters solely to determine whether the police officer who did the shooting should be criminally prosecuted.  If you’ve watched television crime dramas or read a newspaper, you know that there is a very high bar to prosecuting and convicting someone of breaking the criminal law. The perpetrator must be found guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Thus, the attorney general’s review of police killings centers solely on the question whether the AG will prosecute the shooter for the killing -- not whether the shooter acted in a manner that complies with Vermonters’ state and federal rights.

Police departments in major cities, when similar shootings of innocent victims occur, term these incidents “lawful but awful.”

What’s different about what’s been happening in Vermont, though, is any acknowledgment that “awful” means that such shootings need to stop, that society has to do better in how it deals with some of its most vulnerable and marginalized members.

Police chiefs in major cities are grappling with that, as evidenced in the report An Integrated Approach to De-Escalation and Minimizing Use of Force published last August by the Police Executive Research Forum.

There has been silence on the part of Vermont public officials following the fatal Taser shooting last summer in Thetford of Macadam Mason, and now the fatal pistol shooting in Burlington of Wayne Brunette.

Clearly, police protocols around use of deadly force need to change.

It is no longer acceptable for Vermont police to trade a scuffle for a death.  If a police officer would rather shoot someone dead than duck a swinging shovel, or Taser a reclusive person rather than talk with him, then Vermont has reached an unacceptable level of brutality and unaccountability in dealing with its citizens.

The fact that there are police “protocols” and no single police “protocol” also presents problems.

Confusing as it may seem, there is no standard statewide police protocol on when a Vermont law enforcement officer can pull a gun from his or her holster, unshoulder an assault rifle, or reach for a Taser and use it to shoot someone.

Instead, each of the state’s 75 town, city, county, and state police agencies adopt their own use-of-force policies.

Maybe, if there were internal or state investigations that led to conclusions that officers need to exhaust every possible remedy before shooting innocent victims – maybe then there’d be pressure for police agencies to develop more thoughtful use-of-force policies. Or for the legislature to mandate a single, informed policy.

Sometimes, when civil lawsuits are brought by victims’ families, the standard of justification for using deadly force is questioned. But even then, the question of when deadly force is justified is hardly ever answered because there are no judgments in such cases. The cases settle out-of-court with no acknowledgment that something went wrong.

“This was a business decision,” an attorney with the state Attorney General’s Office said after a settlement was reached in 2009 in the case of a Fairlee man, Lawrence Fairbrother, who had been shot with a Taser by state police as he was crawling under his pick-up truck following a seizure. Fairbrother received $40,000.

“Whenever you go to trial, you risk not getting a favorable outcome,” the assistant attorney general said at the time.

In other professions, a death resulting from a professional’s actions would be reviewed by the licensing agency that regularly examines the actions of those practicing within the profession. But not in law enforcement. Law enforcement is not among the 45 professions licensed by the state. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, beauticians, and tattoo artists, yes. But police, no.

Sadly, the only mechanism Vermont has for a fair, independent review of a police officer’s actions is through the criminal justice system, by convening a grand jury.

Prosecutors have been loath to take this route of convening a jury of citizens to review police shootings of other citizens. That option was taken earlier this year, however, after Winooski police shot a 35-year-old mentally disturbed man, Isaac Sage, with both a Taser and a firearm. Sage was wounded, but luckily not fatally. The grand jury returned a “true bill” of charges, which the officer is now facing.

Here’s what needs to happen:

  • A grand jury should be convened in the Brunette case.
  • Public officials should read the Police Executive Research Council’s report on de-escalation and use of force, which discusses at great length the challenges police face when they use the weapons we give them to carry.
  • A statement needs to be made that police shootings of innocent Vermonters must stop. Shootings harm, sometimes fatally, the victims as well as the officers who must live the rest of their lives with the knowledge they killed someone.

And we must all acknowledge that mental illness affects many of our friends, neighbors, and family members. Shooting the victims of mental illness is not providing the assistance that is needed in times of crisis.