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January 14, 2014

Wife of Man Fatally Shot by Police says Burlington Must Do More for Mentally Ill

DSC_0869Barbara Brunette, the wife of a man fatally shot by police in November, implored the Burlington City Council Monday night to invest resources into taking better care of the mentally ill.

A police officer shot Wayne Brunette on Nov. 6 after receiving a call from his parents who said their son was acting irrationally. Police say that Brunette, a 49-year-old who struggled with schizophrenia, threatened two officers with a shovel before he was shot. 

 The Vermont State Police and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office have both cleared the two officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing.

The city council meeting was part eulogy and part plea for more resources.

“My husband was a very caring, poetic, loving, romantic man. He was a fantastic father,” Brunette, pictured above, told the council.  “Policies have to be changed.”

Clearly on the verge of tears but maintaining her composure throughout, Brunette outlined her proposal: “Training needs to be increased for police officers on how to handle mental health issues. Tasers need to be equipped in every vehicle. Every officer should have a Taser, should have pepper spray, a pellet gun — anything that’s not lethal.”

When she returned to her seat, Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling brought her a cup of water.  Later he sat next to her, talking in hushed tones, and the two hugged before she stepped out of the room.  

Schirling and Barbara Brunette, it turns out, grew up close to one another in the North End. They both came to Monday’s meeting to support a resolution put forth by City Council member, Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4) that calls for a review of police procedures for dealing with mentally ill people.

Hartnett, too, has a personal connection to the tragic event; he and Wayne had overlapped at Burlington High School.

Council members held a moment of silence after Brunette spoke, and they later passed the resolution unanimously.

During his remarks, Schirling described a beleaguered mental health system — “We have folks literally living in our emergency departments for weeks on end” — that’s relying too heavily on local law enforcement.

The volume of mental health calls coming into the Burlington Police Department has increased 400 percent over the last five years, according to Schirling.  

The Burlington police chief has said that while all officers carry pepper spray, it wouldn’t have been a plausible alternative in Brunette’s case; Because the man was threatening officers in a deadly way, they needed to respond in kind.

He agrees, however, with Barbara Brunette’s assertion that all officers should also be outfitted with Tasers, stun guns that are designed to temporarily disable violent suspects with a surge of electricity. But, he added, whether Burlington will go that route that depends on how where the Vermont Legislature comes down on the question.

Lawmakers have been deliberating the state’s Taser policies for several years in the wake of the death of Macadam Mason, a Thetford man who was fatally shot with a Taser by police. Mason had also been in the midst of a mental health crisis. 

Schirling said he recognizes that police presence can be counterproductive in these situation and his department is continuing to work the HowardCenter to minimize his officers’ involvement in situations that don’t involve “imminent risk.”  To that end, they are training Justin Verette, a street outreach worker, whose current job is to help people avert crises, to also start responding to crises when they do occur. And the HowardCenter recently received state money to hire another person to assist Verette.

But Schirling also described the system’s shortcomings as far too endemic to be solved with one or two people. “I had a gentleman who jumped off the Winooski Bridge into the river,” he told council members. The man survived, but he was sent home because there was no space at a treatment facility, according to Schirling.

A few days later, the man called the police a second time, threatening to shoot them and then take his own life. When crisis negotiators arrived, the man emerged with a television remote held to his head. He was sent to the Northwest State Correctional Facility on charges of making a false public alarm. 

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