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November 22, 2013

Records Show Burlington Cops Used Little Force Prior to Shooting

The two Burlington police officers involved in the shooting death of a mentally ill man wielding a shovel earlier this month had not fired or even pointed a weapon at a suspect in the years before the shooting, according to department records.

Officers Ethan Thibault and Brent Navari used force in the line of duty a combined 14 times since 2010, according to Burlington Police Department records. The officers' use of force reports were obtained by Seven Days under a public records request submitted to the police department. 

The officers responded to the New North End home of Wayne Brunette and his parents on Nov. 6 after the 49-year-old man's mother called to say he was acting irrationally. Police say Brunette was wielding a shovel in a threatening way and, roughly two minutes after the officers arrived, one of them had shot him to death in the family's front yard. As is routine in such cases, the officers' actions are being reviewed in separate inquiries by the Burlington department and Vermont State Police. 

The records show that, of the 14 combined incidents before Brunette's death, eight involved using some measure of force against people suffering mental illness, under the influence of substances or otherwise in a troubled state of mind. Brunette had a history of mental illness.

The Burlington Police considers officers to have used force — and requires them to file reports — if they deploy or brandish a service weapon, strike someone or otherwise use their hands to pacify a suspect. Even pulling a person's hands behind his or her back for handcuffing when they don't do so voluntarily qualifies as a use of force.

Navari grabbed one suspect's arm and utilized a knee strike to bring another suspect under control in recent years, according to police records.  Thibault utilized similar manuvers, and twice shot pepper spray at suspects, according to the records. 

Deputy Police Chief Andi Higbee said there was nothing worrisome in the reports, which he said showed typical patterns of incidents in which officers have to use force. He also emphasized that the officers were summoned to hundreds of incidents, and used force only a handful of times.

"It's consistent; there's nothing in the reports that's surprising to me at all," Higbee said. However, he added, "Our response to individuals with mental health problems has skyrocketed in the past few years."

Higbee noted that Thibault has often patrolled the Church Street corridor, where he said Thibault was more likely to encounter people who are mentally ill or under the influence.

Seven Days requested reports dating several years back, but Burlington police said that computer problems prevented them from readily accessing use of force reports from before 2010.

Thibault fired four shots at Brunette after he refused commands to drop a shovel and approached them, authorities have said. Navari did not fire. Both men have returned to duty, and Police Chief Michael Schirling has said that preliminary police investigations, which are still ongoing, showed the officers acted appropriately.



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